Saar: 60 Minutes Interview
May 1, 2005
(CBS) The story that Sgt. Erik Saar, a soldier who spent three months in the interrogation rooms at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, tells Correspondent Scott Pelley paints a picture of bizarre, even sadistic, treatment of detainees in the American prison camp.
Experts in intelligence tell 60 Minutes that if what
Saar says is true, some soldiers at Guantanamo have undermined the war
on terror, bungling the interrogation of important prisoners. 60 Minutes also reveals previously secret emails from
FBI agents at Guantanamo that warn FBI headquarters that prisoners are
being tortured. "I think the harm we are doing there far outweighs the good, and I
believe it's inconsistent with American values," says Saar. "In fact, I
think it's fair to say that it’s the moral antithesis of what we want
to stand for as a country."
Saar volunteered for Guantanamo Bay in 2002. He was a U.S. Army
linguist, an expert in Arabic, with a top-secret security clearance. He
was assigned to translate during interrogations. The prisoners, about
600 in all, were mostly from the battlefields of Afghanistan. And Saar
couldn’t wait to get at them after what the administration said: the
men were "among the most dangerous, best-trained, vicious killers on
the face of the earth."
With that in mind, Saar went to work, but he was surprised by what he found.
How many prisoners did he think were the worst of the worst – real terrorists?
"At best, I would say there were a few dozen," says Saar. "A few dozen [out of 600]."
Who were the rest of the guys? "Some of them were conscripts who actually were forced to fight for the Taliban, so actually had taken up arms against us, but had little or no choice in the matter," says Saar. "Some of them were individuals who were picked up by the Northern Alliance, and we have no idea why they were there, and we didn't know exactly what their connections were to terrorism."
However they got there, Saar and the rest of Guantanamo’s intelligence personnel were told that the captives were not prisoners of war, and therefore, were not protected by the Geneva Convention.
"Your training in intelligence had told you what about the Geneva Conventions?" asks Pelley.
"That they were never to be violated," says Saar. "As a matter of fact, the training for interrogators themselves, their entire coursework falls under the umbrella of you never violate the Geneva Conventions."
"If the rules of the Geneva Convention did not apply, what rules did apply?" asks Pelley.
"I don't think anybody knew that," says Saar.
And so, Saar said, some U.S. military intelligence personnel used cruelty, and even bizarre sexual tactics against the prisoners. Saar has written a book, "Inside the Wire," about his experiences at Guantanamo. Penguin Press will release it on Tuesday.
He told 60 Minutes about one interrogation in particular, in which he translated for a female interrogator who was trying to break a high-priority prisoner — a Saudi who had been in flight school in the United States.
"As she stood in front of him, she slowly started to unbutton her Army blouse. She had on underneath the Army blouse a tight brown Army T-shirt, touched her breasts, and said, 'Don't you like these big American breasts?'" says Saar. "She wanted to create a barrier between this detainee and his faith, and if she could somehow sexually entice him, he would feel unclean in an Islamic way, he would not be able to pray and go before his God and gain that strength, so the next day, maybe he would be able to start cooperating, start talking to her."
But the prisoner wasn’t talking, so Saar said the interrogator increased the pressure.
"She started to unbutton her pants and reached and put her hands in her pants and then started to circle around the detainee. And when she had her hands in her pants, apparently she used something to put what appeared to be menstrual blood on her hand, but in fact was ink," says Saar.
"When she circled around the detainee, she pulled out her hand, which was red, and said, 'I'm actually menstruating right now, and I'm touching you. Does that please your God? Does that please Allah?' And then he kind of got pent up and shied away from her, and she then took the ink and wiped it on his face, and said, 'How do you like that?'" Then, the interrogator sent the prisoner back to his cell with a message.
"She said, 'Have fun trying to pray tonight while there's no water in your cell,’ meaning that she was gonna have the water turned off in his cell, so that he then could not go back and become ritually clean. So he then therefore could not pray," says Saar.
"I know that the individual that we were talking that night was a bad individual. Someone who I hope never -- I hope he’s in captivity forever, I hope he never goes anywhere. But I felt awful that night. I felt dirty and disgusting."
"What you have here is a Saudi training at an American flight school, just like the 9/11 hijackers," says Pelley. "You know, there are people at home watching this right now, saying, 'Hey, you've got to do what you've got to do.'"
"I do understand that, and the fact is No. 1, it's ineffective," says Saar. "There are much better methods that were being employed at Guantanamo Bay, that yielded the little bit of intelligence that we did receive, and it wasn't methods like those."
60 Minutes talked to three interrogators who were at Guantanamo at the same time that Saar was there. And they told us the sexual tactics were well known, and even had a name they called it the “sex-up” approach.
Did it work?
"It did not work, and from what I later learned, the detainee remained uncooperative," says Saar. "It's impossible to try to build a connection and establish trust. We were now relying solely on fear to get the detainee to cooperate, and I think that's an enormous mistake. I think many of the FBI agents on the base felt as though that was a mistake also."
The FBI does its own questioning of prisoners at Guantanamo, and those agents have been writing emails, classified secret, to FBI headquarters. They detail abuse by military interrogators. The agents wrote of finding prisoners “chained hand and foot in a fetal position” for up to 24 hours at a time, and of prisoners who had “urinated or defecated on themselves."
Another FBI document says an interrogator grabbed a detainee’s thumbs and “bent them backwards” and “grabbed his genitals.” One FBI agent reported that he saw a detainee had been “gagged with duct tape that covered much of his head.” The interrogator explained that the prisoner had been “chanting the Koran and would not stop.”
60 Minutes ran the emails and Saar’s story past one of the nation’s most experienced military intelligence experts.
"Unimaginable to me, I just can not imagine what people think they were doing," says Army Col. Patrick Lang, who was head of human intelligence gathering at the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency.
Lang, who’s now retired, wrote the Arabic and Middle-East studies curricula for West Point. "I mean, what is this?" asks Lang. "A scene from Dante's Inferno? I mean, what level of hell are we on to? Imagine that we could do such things to people? This is just absolutely wrong."
60 Minutes also asked Lang to review some of the written statements of prisoners who claim to have been beaten.
"If people were really beaten and kicked and knocked around, and their heads beaten against the floor, and had, you know, deprived of treatment for broken bones and teeth resulting from this," says Lang. "If these things really happened in fact, to me, that's a lot more serious than this silliness with having these girls go in and rub themselves all over these prisoners."
"There is a lot of discussion about precisely what the word "torture" means," says Pelley. "You've been at the top of defense military intelligence. Based on what you've seen and heard, is all of this torture?"
"I think that a lot of this behavior which has been allowed is so far outside the pale, that I think that it would have to be considered to be something not allowed in international law or U.S. military law," says Lang.
But is it torture? "Yeah," says Lang. "I think it's torture." And one of the FBI agents at Guantanamo thought so, too. He warned FBI headquarters the military was using “torture techniques.” The FBI emails were uncovered and declassified in a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union. The head of the ACLU, Anthony Romero, says that the FBI agents were worried that military interrogators were ruining any chance of getting reliable intelligence.
"Here you have the FBI and its own behavioral assessment unit raising serious questions about the effectiveness or the utility of information gotten under torture techniques," says Romero.
"When the FBI agents are writing about these techniques, they're asking their bosses in Washington for what?" asks Pelley. "What’s the point of these memos?"
"They're asking sometimes for guidance," says Romero. "FBI agents were being instructed not to be a part of interrogations where they thought torture and abuse was taking place. So what's curious is here you have the Department of Defense undertaking some of the interrogation techniques. And FBI agents sitting on the sidelines because their own leadership thought it would be inappropriate for them to be involved in these interrogations."
Based on the FBI emails, and Saar’s story, the Pentagon’s southern command is now investigating whether prisoners have been tortured or subjected to sexual tactics at Guantanamo Bay.
If all this was well known on the base, how could it have been kept largely under wraps for three years, especially when congressmen and senators often inspected the camp? Well, Saar said it may be in part because those inspections were rigged to fool the visiting VIPs.
"Interrogations were set up so the VIPs could come and witness an interrogation, and in fact the interrogation would be a mock interrogation, basically," says Saar.
"They would find a detainee that they knew to have been cooperative. They would ask the interrogator to go back over the same information that they reviewed on whatever date they had previously interrogated the detainee," says Saar. "And they would sit across a table and talk as though you and I are talking, and this was a fictitious world that they would create for these VIP visits, because in fact, it's not what generally took place in Guantanamo Bay."
"They staged the interrogations?" asks Pelley.
"Yes," says Saar. "They staged the interrogations."
60 Minutes asked the Army to comment on Saar’s story, or provide someone to talk about Guantanamo Bay. The Army declined.
But last year, Vice Admiral Albert Church was ordered to inspect U.S. military detention centers worldwide, and he praised Guantanamo Bay’s military police and interrogators, writing that Guantanamo has: “… an effective model that greatly enhances intelligence collection and does not lead to detainee abuse. . .”
He also wrote: “ . . . It is a model that should be considered for use in other interrogation operations in the global war on terror.”
Still, Lang said the picture of Guantanamo Bay’s operation painted by Saar and the FBI memos is unrecognizable to him.
"If we do things like this, if we beat people and we neglect them and we try to use their religion against them, however stupidly, I mean, in fact, we're debasing ourselves to the point in fact in which we're losing something, that we should be trying to protect in this war," says Lang.
"You told us earlier that you were ashamed to hear about these tactics," says Pelley.
"I was," says Lang. "As a professional soldier, and someone who dedicated his life to the service of the United States, in fact, to think that United States would stoop to such tactics as this, I find to be a disgraceful thing."