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An Interrogator Speaks Out

by Pratap ChatterjeeSpecial to CorpWatch
March 7th, 2005


Torin Nelson has worked in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. An expert interrogator, he was hired by the Virginia-based company CACI International Inc., to work at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, at the time when prisoners there were subjected to abuse and torture.

Trained in interrogation techniques at Fort Huachuca in southern Arizona, Nelson has spoken out against this abuse, but believes firmly that interrogation is a military necessity and can be conducted in a humane manner.

"I wanted to defend my profession because what I saw in the media was a lot of mistaken conjecture, erroneous stuff," Nelson said in a phone interview from his home in Salt Lake City, Utah. "The abuses in Abu Ghraib were anathema to mission accomplishment."

 After the September 11th, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, many officers in Nelson's position were activated. In August 2002 he was sent to Guantanamo Bay where he spent six months. He was a sergeant working in Camp X Ray and in October of that year, he heard of government plans to use harsher techniques such as "sleep management" and "meal management" on the base's Camp Delta.

"The FBI told them it wouldn't work, but they got permission from the Secretary of Defense," says Nelson. "They created a Special Projects team drawn from different battalions, and used techniques like 20 hours of interrogation [followed by] 20 hours of sleep, and playing loud rock music." He says he thought these approaches were "a waste of time" but felt he was too low on the chain of command to speak critically about the techniques.

"Today, there are two schools of thought: the new school which believes that the ends justify the means. I believe the means justify the ends," Nelson says. "I believe that you should build up trust to the point where your subjects believe that you will go to bat for them. Whether or not higher-ups grant your requests is up to them and good interrogators should never promise what they cannot deliver. So you say you will go to bat for them, but no more."

In February 2003, he returned to the States to get ready for the Iraq war and was deployed during the March 2003 invasion. Nelson left Iraq in July and quit the military because he felt disillusioned by the way the war was developing. "Higher-ups with less experience were making piss-poor decisions instead of listening to lower-ranking, more experienced people," he says.

Soon he got a job with a private contractor, CACI, and he was posted to Abu Ghraib, which had been made into a prison when all the other sites were overflowing. Nelson explains that half of the 30 interrogators in Abu Ghraib were civilian and the rest were military. "Perhaps a third had no formal training, some had related training like Stephen Stephanowicz who trained as an analyst but not as an interrogator," he says.

Nelson was one of many prison officials who testified for Major General Antonio Taguba's 53-page classified internal report on the conduct of civilian and military interrogators. This was later made public by investigative journalist Seymour Hersh of The New Yorker in May 2004, creating an international uproar.

Intelligence Contracting

Read the full series on intelligence contracting:

Private Contractors and Torture at Abu Ghraib, May 7th, 2004

Titan's Translators in Trouble, May 7th, 2004

Prison Interrogation for Profit, September 15th, 2004

Intelligence, Inc., March 7th, 2005

An Interrogator Speaks Out, March 7th, 2005

Meet the New Interrogators: Lockheed Martin, November 4th, 2005

Border for Sale: Privatizing Immigration Control, July 5th, 2006

Intelligence in Iraq: L-3 Supplies Spy Support, August 9th, 2006

A Translator's Tale, August 9th, 2006 

Download PDF: Taguba Report on Abu Ghraib

According to the Taguba report, Stephanowicz, a CACI interrogator, "made a false statement to the investigation team regarding the locations of his interrogations, the activities during his interrogations, and his knowledge of abuses." Further, investigators found Stephanowicz encouraged military police to terrorize inmates, and "clearly knew his instructions equated to physical abuse."

Another report, written by the Red Cross, revealed that investigators had found naked prisoners covering themselves with packages from ready-to-eat military rations, and being subjected to "deliberate physical violence and verbal abuse." Prisoners were found to be incoherent, anxious, and even suicidal, with abnormal symptoms "provoked by the interrogation period and methods." The document stated that prison authorities "could not explain" the lack of clothing for prisoners and "could not provide clarification" about other mistreatment of prisoners.

Nelson decided to leave at the end of January 2004 when other CACI staff became hostile to him when it became obvious he had told the truth to Taguba. One co-worker told him that he was effectively dead to him and that he "better watch his back."

By this time, Nelson had also realized the American interrogators were interviewing the wrong people. "I told [the CACI project manager] that the country was going to hell in a handbasket and the American military was not doing a damn thing about it," says Nelson.

Since his return, Nelson has written a book called "American Interrogator," about what he considers proper interrogation techniques, but he has yet to find a publisher. He also spent time in Washington DC trying to drum up interest in a Congress-sponsored committee of experienced professionals like himself (but not generals or politicians) to critique and overhaul the system of military training, recruitment and management of operations.

The bible of interrogation techniques, Nelson explains, is Army manual FM 34/52, although a new manual is now in the works. This manual lists 17 methods of interrogation, which include "Direct Approach," "Silence," "Rapid Fire," "Pride and Ego Up," "Pride and Ego Down," "Fear Up Mild" and "Fear Up Harsh."

"Fear Up Harsh" is the most heavy-handed technique, says Nelson. It involves yelling, accusing the subject of lying and banging one's fist on the table. "Fear Up Mild" might involve pulling out a file and reciting the information in a calm voice where they were caught, the charges being brought against them, such as carrying a weapon while not in uniform, and the possible consequences.

"'Pride and Ego Down' is revealing that you know they were caught in an embarrassing situation," says Nelson. This technique might involve divulging knowledge that the subject was caught dressed in women's clothing to get across a checkpoint, or that he had failed to save the life of a colleague. According to the former interrogator, "you might make fun of them or you might promise to erase it from the record. More often that not, you use "Pride & Ego Up," because your subject is [already] shattered emotionally, so you build up their morale, say they've acted like a hero."

The Rapid Fire technique, he adds, involves two or three interrogators asking questions simultaneously. Despite all this, Nelson says, "It was pounded into our heads that you never abuse a prisoner. We had to learn the Geneva Conventions, it was part of our manual."

"At no time are we allowed to have physical contact," he continues. "And I personally believe that 'Fear Up Harsh' does not really work. Good interrogation is not about bright lights, 'tell us where you were!' techniques. No, that's from a B grade spy novel. Good interrogation is about professional questioning and proper reporting up the chain of command. It is all about building rapport, and if you do it well, you never have to use abusive techniques. We need to be viewed as the solution, not as a source of problems. If you play it right, you should never be the bad guy. We manipulate people but we do not coerce them."

Pratap Chatterjee is managing editor of CorpWatch. He can be reached at "pratap@corpwatch.org"