Erik Saar, a clean-cut, former Bible-college student dressed in a white shirt, looks like someone who’s just left the Army and still kind of misses it. Saar, 30, speaks nostalgically about his days as a sergeant and Arabic linguist — right up to the moment when he was sitting in an interrogation room at Guantanamo Bay and watched things go terribly wrong. Sitting in a Starbucks in Rosslyn, Virginia, Saar talks about female interrogators, thongs in a supervisor’s office, and, of course, Newsweek’s “Periscope” item.
What was your first impression of Guantanamo Bay?
I got there on December 10, 2002, and stayed until June 20, 2003. It was 80 degrees and sunny every day. And there was Camp Delta. It hit me as an unfortunate realty of war. On day one, or even during the first two months, I did not say, “Wow, what a terrible place this is.” I felt like, “This is what you do when you need to defend yourself.” To be honest, it sometimes has appeared in the media that my book is nothing more than a chronicle of abuses. But I volunteered to go to Guantanamo Bay. I wanted to be at “the tip of the spear,” as you say in the Army. That’s where you’re out in front, gathering intelligence, and sitting down with the worst of the worst.
What were the interrogations like?
The military was using the “fear-up” approach. They put people in the “three-piece suit,” which means their hands and ankles were cuffed and they have a chain around their waist and all three things are chained to a ring in the floor. There was screaming in the rooms. But the intense techniques — I guess that’s the best way of putting it — didn’t seem as effective as the other, more ethical techniques that were being used by other agencies. And that — combined with the fact there were people who shouldn’t have been there, and they had no access to justice — made me feel like the system was un-American. The use of sexual tactics really put the nail in the coffin.
What did you think about the Newsweek item about the Koran?
I’m inclined to believe it did not happen. Starting in January 2003, there was a policy that said only Muslims could touch the Koran. But the policy was problematic. Number one, it was unclear. People who I’d call secular Muslims were allowed to touch the Koran, but other linguists weren’t. Number two, it was un-military. It interfered with the inspection of cells. Overall, it was a reflection of how undisciplined the command environment was. We didn’t know what was right or wrong.
Believe me; I’m not sympathetic to the detainees. But there are two principles: First, there’s what you’re doing to the detainee. Americans don’t necessarily understand how insulting and demeaning and humiliating the sexual tactics are to the detainees’ religious beliefs, which are so deeply held. As a person of faith, I think my faith should be that strong. The sexual techniques are an attempt to separate the detainee from something he views as holy — and to affect his relationship with his god.
Some of my friends have said, “Who cares what happens to the detainees?” In the end, it doesn’t matter what we think. It matters what people in the Middle East think. Our actions make a statement to over a billion Muslims in the world. We’re saying, “We have respect for your religion and are committed to promoting democracy justice throughout the Arab world. But when it comes to defending ourselves, well, that is something different.” This has an impact on national security. In 20 years, we may have more terrorists than we do now.
You said you changed your mind about how things were done at Guantanamo after one interrogation. What happened?
We went into the room at midnight, and she said she was going to try to humiliate the detainee because he hadn’t been complying.
Who is she?
The female interrogator.
Can you tell me about her?
Um. I’d rather not.
Did you like her? Did you have a relationship with her?
Um. A casual relationship. I’ll say this: I don’t think she was doing anything she thought she wasn’t supposed to be doing. I can’t tell you I saw a document that said, “Why don’t we wipe fake menstrual blood on the detainees.” However, I can tell you using sex in the interrogation booth was not hidden. One female interrogator kept a miniskirt hanging on her door in an office shared by her supervisor and across the hall from the colonel in charge of the intelligence unit. Oh, and there was a thong, too. Honestly, you can’t tell me there weren’t people at Gitmo that approved that. I knew, when this stuff about the female interrogator came out, the Army might throw the book at her. That’s what they did in Iraq. They found the lowest-ranking person — the lowest common denominator — and said, “This person was acting on their own, and we’re going to punish that.” Then an E3 in West Virginia spends 10 years in jail because she was following orders.
So what happened in the interrogation room?
It was her and me and the detainee in a small room about 15 feet across. He’s in a “three-piece suit.” People have said I’m soft or naïve. [FOX News Channel host] Bill O’Reilly said, “These people would want to kill you and your wife in a heartbeat.” But it wasn’t like I was feeling sorry for the guy. To be honest, the overwhelming emotion was anger. Like, “Screw this guy.” She asked, “Are you going to comply tonight?” Then she started to take off her outer top. She had a tight T-shirt on, and she touched her chest and tried to arouse him and then rubbed her chest on his back. I don’t want to create the impression I was sitting there, saying, “This is awful, awful, awful.” I was curious. I was wondering, “Is this going to work? Is he going to say, ‘No, stop rubbing your chest on me, and I’ll start talking to you.’” It was surreal, actually. Then she took red ink from a dry-erase marker and pretended it was menstrual blood and smeared it on his face. He shot out of his chair, screaming. One of his ankle chains came off. It was as though he had been burned — or scalded.
When did you realize something had gone wrong?
It was probably the moment the gates locked behind me, and I got into the van to drive home. I sat in the van for a second and stared at the camp. I thought, “This is bigger than the three of us — she and I and the detainee.” There was a message we were sending out to the Muslim world, and that would have an impact on who we are as a country. That’s when I felt ashamed.
Tara McKelvey is a Prospect senior editor.