Tara McKelvey's Monstering: Inside America's Policy of Secret Interrogations and Torture in the Terror War is a harrowing investigation into the atrocities at Abu Ghraib. Once the unforgettable photos of prisoner abuse hit the media, the administration cast the crimes as a few soldiers gone bad. But McKelvey uncovers a vast network of enabling circumstances: the administration's revised definitions of torture, organizational incompetence, the absence of leadership at the prison, the impossible demands for information, and the abhorrent behavior of unseasoned troops under these circumstances. Her exhaustive reporting—including former detainees, army personnel, former administration officials, and human rights lawyers—gives readers an unprecedented look into what Susan Gardner of the Daily Kos aptly called "a nightmare landscape populated by a conveniently undertrained, undirected, stressed-out group of inexperienced young soldiers." We see soldiers Robotripping on a noxious cocktail of over-the-counter drugs, contractors pulling rank on soldiers, children crying for their mothers, men holding their dead children and pleading for mercy. Monstering remains an urgent dispatch of what this country has to recover from the war.
McKelvey was the first journalist to interview female prisoners at Abu Ghraib, and the only journalist to interview Lynndie England, the soldier who has become the emblem of America's shame. Two of McKelvey's sources, former prisoners who agreed to be interviewed, were killed. While Abu Ghraib has evaporated off the front pages, replaced by a motley collection of errors that have plagued the war in Iraq, these stories haunt the country, if only as a warning.
Tara McKelvey is a senior editor at the American Prospect, a contributing editor at Marie Claire, and a research fellow at the Center on Law and Security at the NYU School of Law. She is also the anthology editor of One of the Guys: Women as Aggressors and Torturers, a collection examining women's roles as perpetrators. Tara and I got together to talk about reporting, writing a book about a subject no one wants to think about, and the delicate nature of the subject-journalist relationship.
Mara Naselli: Monstering started out of reporting on stories you did on women prisoners in Abu Ghraib. When you began to see that this could be a larger project, did you think, "There's no way people are going to read about this. There's media fatigue and the subject is difficult..."
Tara McKelvey: Yeah. And that's what my agent told me, too. But first of all, I really wanted to do it, really bad. Because I heard these stories from these people who had been held at Abu Ghraib and I felt like no one really heard about the prisoners. All we got about the prisoners were pictures, and you couldn't tell who they were, and tiny snippets of quotes, like "I was held for twelve weeks" or whatever. And some of the descriptions of what had happened, but it didn't really make you care that much because they were so stripped of any context. [The detainees] weren't human beings in these little tiny interviews they gave, like for newspaper articles. And since I met them and they became individuals and they told me their stories, and their stories were so painful, I felt this obligation to tell people. I just wanted so much for people to know what I knew about these Iraqi civilians. So that was the main thing: I knew I was going to do this book and I didn't care how I was going to do it.
But I write for mass market, and I knew that there needed to be some American character in the story in order to have any readers at all. I've been doing this stuff for a long time, and I've been writing about subjects that are not that appealing to mass market. But doing them through an American activist . . . and then telling the story of some human rights abuse through this activist. I had someone for my story, and that was this lawyer Susan Burke. So I was going to sell this story of a crusading lawyer, like an Erin Brockovich, and then I would sneakily get in the story about the prisoners. [Ed. note: Burke is one of a team of lawyers who filed a civil suit against private contracting corporations (Titan Corporation, CACI PT Inc. and CACI International) for torture, rape, and murder in Iraq.]
MN: But you decided to shift gears and not make her central to the story. What happened?
TM: I found the lawsuit that I was writing about—I had a different view of it as time changed. I always knew the people involved in the lawsuit were naïve in some ways, and that's why they were interesting characters to me. Because they seemed to symbolize the American role in Iraq. Americans didn't know anything about Iraq. We invaded and we didn't speak the language, there were all sorts of problems. And the lawsuit had some of the same problems. [The lawyers] didn't know the language. They didn't know that much about the Middle East. And they kind of charged in there wanting to do good. But it got really bad. A couple people were killed. And I just got really upset. It got harder to make a lawyer into a crusading hero when I felt like some of the decisions that were made were not so wise. I also got frustrated with the restrictions that were placed on me for doing interviews.
MN: The lawyers were placing restrictions on you in how you interviewed?
TM: They wouldn't let me ask certain questions. And they had their reasons for not letting me ask certain questions, but I was there as a journalist, and to not let me ask about their [clients'] Sunni background, or about their Ba'athist affiliation, it's not right. As a human being, you should be curious about what happened to them. Apparently as lawyers, they weren't, but that just seemed to me so narrow, that I really wanted to tell the full story of who these people were, the good and the bad, and they weren't all so good. Some had really shady backgrounds. So there was a combination of stuff. My disillusionment with some of the things the lawyers were doing—even though I like them very much as people—I had a hard time justifying presenting them as heroes.
MN: So then how did you choose which character to focus on next? Is that when Provance [a soldier at Abu Ghraib] appeared on the scene?
TM: Provance was perfect because he told me so much stuff. He gave me the videos, he gave me the pictures, and he was complicated too. I really like him, but he's kind of a weird guy. But he's got this Church of Satan stuff, and you kinda want to hide that.
MN: But he seems comfortable with this weird ambiguity that he creates.
TM: Yeah. It's fine, but you know if someone is going to go against the army, they are going to be a little weird. They just are. And it's true in the private sector. If they were really normal, they would be in the popular group and the people in the popular group don't usually blow the whistle. So that's a kind of job description of whistle blower.
MN: How did you get access to Lynndie England and establish enough trust to be able to speak with her mother and her sister and visit her and go to their home? That was kind of extraordinary.
TM: Yeah, I don't know. I have lots of theories about it. I just got this email the other day from somebody I'm interviewing. She wrote and said, "You know, I don't normally trust people like this but I really trust you and I'm wondering if you can help me out with my daughter . . ." and all this stuff. She's a good source for me. But this happens to me a lot. People tell me lots of stuff, and then they trust me, and that was the case with Lynndie England's family. Part of it is because I actually listen, unlike most people who don't really care, or whatever, and I'm really curious, and I just like hearing stories. It's like the sports bar thing in the airport: you sit there and someone tells you some amazing story because you're somehow anonymous. That's part of it. People know very little about me, and so they are able to open up and tell me all sorts of stuff about themselves. But it's a very tricky game. I tell people all the time, "I'm a journalist, I'm writing a story." With the Englands, I told the mom again and again, "I'm not here as a friend, I'm writing an article. And I just want you to remember that, and if you don't want me to know some of this stuff, I completely understand and I respect that." It's hard. Not every journalist does that. Some have different approaches. But I always try to make that very clear.
And then I got this message from my editor after the whole Lynndie England visit was over, and it was from Terrie England, the mother. And she told my editor "Is Tara going to come out and see us again, I hope so," or something like that, "and this time will she come as a friend?"
TM: And I felt so bad. I don't know if I'll come as a friend. Maybe . . . maybe. Sometimes it happens, but usually not.
MN: I think it's hard for the public to understand [journalist-subject roles].
TM: Yeah. Some of these rules are made up. There are all these rules about background, not on background, attribution, not for attribution, all this stuff. I try as best I can not to do any of that because I was never a Washington inside-the-Beltway reporter. I never got into that. I was never important enough as a reporter to be dealing with those levels of secrecy. And since I was talking to ordinary people I didn't have to deal with those gradations of what's allowed and what isn't allowed. So I always talk to people on the record. This is my job. I'm a journalist and I'm here to do a story. And I really want your help, but if you don't want to say stuff on the record, I understand, but then maybe we shouldn't do the interview. In Washington that's a big shocking thing, because [the subjects] are so used to controlling everything that is included or not included in an article.
MN: And you'd rather have it all straight out.
TM: Yeah. What's the point? And also, when people say, "Oh, I can't tell you that"—I remember somebody telling me in college when I was taking a couple of journalism courses, "It's like they've got a hot rock in their mouth." They're dying to tell you. So when you say you won't do anything off the record, eventually they are going to tell you. And it seems to work. And people tell you way more stuff than you need to know, or could possibly use. Way more stuff. And what are you looking for anyway? The Da Vinci code? Is someone is going to reveal that in some off-the-record conversation? It's not going to happen. Stories are based on hours and weeks and months of doing research and reading and talking to people. It's not like there's a secret.
MN: In terms of Lynndie England—she's such a complicated character. I felt like I couldn't get a good sense of how she could get in this situation. You have that great story where she walks off a job.
TM: Yeah, she stood up for something. . .
MN: And at the end you suggest sexual abuse . . .
TM: But I don't think there was physical abuse or sexual abuse. It's not like the fallback that everyone says, "Oh she must have been sexually abused as a child." I don't think she was. She had problems with boundaries. Her family did. And that is a real problem. If you don't have a real clear sense of self—that this is my body and it belongs to me and you are not allowed to mess with it. That's a really important lesson. It's not that anyone was abusing her, but there was a fluid notion of her own sense of self, and that was often violated, but in joking, funny ways. But that erodes a sense of your own integrity of the body, and seems to lend itself to less respect for other peoples' bodies.
[Ed. note: The passage reads, "Now is as good a time as any to mention that some people say England must have been abused as a child. That would help explain her behavior. Terrie and [her sister, Jessie] have heard it all before. They tell me she was never mistreated, sexually or physically. But they do banter about sex. In the brig, Terrie makes a joke about the way England's name is emblazoned on the back of her uniform. 'On her ass,' Terrie had said. . . . 'Show it,' Terrie urged, reaching out and pretending to grab her daughter's butt. 'I've been away from it for so long.'"]
MN: As you were interviewing her—how much did you feel compelled to explain these people's actions, and how much did you feel like you needed to keep more of a distance and just tell the story as they were telling it?
TM: Part of it was I couldn't figure it out. If I could be inside their heads I would know more, but I was aware of my own limitations of understanding of what was going on in their heads. I never wanted to presume. How hubristic to say I know what is going on in their heads. I can never know that. I just wanted to get clues as best I could. Some of it is still a bit inexplicable. Especially if the person is not high on self-awareness or self-knowledge, that makes it a lot harder. If they don't know, how am I supposed to know? I can guess . . .
MN: I think that is a real strength of the writing, though. It's kind of refreshing to not have someone speculate and psychoanalyze these subjects.
TM: I wouldn't want anyone to do that with me. It would make me mad. And what if you read something about yourself and they were describing how you felt? I'd be mad. I do go over all the facts with the people I interview.
MN: Did you wrestle with the shape or tone you were going to take with the book?
TM: Yeah. I wanted to basically do it chronologically, because it seemed easiest. I wanted easy. The subject is very difficult.
MN: But the timeline is actually really complicated.
TM: Yeah. In some ways the timeline is quite illuminating. To know who knew what when is a really important question, so I set it up like CSI. Before the crime, the crime, and the investigation. And it was also somewhat like a criminal trial, like how you would set up a narrative for a trial. But I didn't want bells or whistles. I really wanted straightforward as much as possible. The subject is messy enough.
MN: Did the access and the reporting you could do also shape the narrative?
TM: Well, I could never get to the big guys, but it didn't matter so much. That didn't make any difference for the narrative. Like if I got to Rumsfeld, I would have done the book differently, I'm sure. So it was independent of whom I was going to talk to, or what the sourcing was. It was more a matter of here's a story, here are the parts I want to put in it, who can I get to to describe that aspect of it. I wanted as many people as I could get to who were as close to the actual crimes as possible. I wanted to find out about people who were there shortly after the prison was built. And I wanted to get to people who knew about the actual investigations.
MN: I thought it was very interesting how there seemed to be this big shift in the culture of Abu Ghraib and how it operated after the contractors arrived.
TM: Yeah, they were the cool guys.
TM: With the fleece jackets and . . .
MN: And it seemed to ratchet up every tension—every sexual tension, every stress, every expression of violence . . .
TM: Yeah. There was the influence of Guantanamo at that point. According to Provance the interrogations became much more aggressive. It was much more "we need this intelligence, we need this information now"—so there was that institutional shift. And then there was this shift in terms of the dynamics of the prison, where you suddenly have these cool guys, and the status is all messed up, because now they [contractors] have the high status. They could get the girls . . . there were contractors before, but they didn't play such an important role.
MN: Did the sweeps [raids on Iraqi civilian homes looking for weapons and insurgents] escalate after the contractors came?
TM: I don't know the relationship between the sweeps and the contractors. I think what happened was they became more aggressive in how they gathered intelligence in the fall of 2003. Jeffrey Miller came to Abu Ghraib in September, and they started sending over more contractors who had been trained at Guantanamo and were familiar with the Guantanamo techniques, and all those things came into play. It made a big difference.
MN: But even those techniques were being practiced in Guantanamo in a different kind of setting—a much more regulated setting.
TM: Whatever you can say about the techniques that were used at Guantanamo—you can be critical of what they were doing—but they were controlled circumstances. Dietary manipulation or sleep deprivation—these things are, you know, criticized by human rights activists.
MN: Absolutely . . .
TM: But at Guantanamo, the interrogations were done in Tiger Teams, with the assistance or supervision of a physician or psychologist. And again, it's an outrage—a lot of physicians see this as an outrage that people in the healing profession are involved in interrogations that are intended to do harm. Setting all that aside for a second, you still had controls. The ratio of prisoner to guard was one to one. At Abu Ghraib, these techniques were introduced—dietary manipulation, sleep deprivation, and all these kinds of things, and expected to be inflicted during interrogations and used during the sessions—but there was chaos in the prison. There were no controls. At one time, according to Congressional testimony, the prisoner to guard ratio was seventy-five to one.
MN: I thought that was just astounding. It seemed like what had happened was this toxic cocktail of incompetence on the ground and insidious intentions at the top. And combining those two things . . . that ratio is just insane. And the scale of the sweeps—bringing in all these people, 70 to 90 percent of whom had no information. And the children? It just didn't make any sense. Even in a military . . .
TM: And the military doesn't like it either.
MN: Yeah. I'm not endorsing it, but if you wanted to be effective in this way . . .
TM: Right. Even if you're going to fight a counterinsurgency campaign, and were going to use all the tools available, you wouldn't do that. It's counterproductive. But there's something about the insidious intent up above and the incompetence below—and people a lot of times will talk to me about emphasizing that insidious intent and they'll say, they [officials in the administration] were doing these things, and they wanted to do these things. But you have to remember the prison was chaos. Like in the Top Secret room that Provance told me about—Provance said one of their methods of shielding secret information was that they would play White Stripes. Like [loud music] would be playing, and that was the way to camouflage the secret information that was passed. I mean, it was amateur hour!
MN: But did they indeed have a direct connection to the Department of Defense?
TM: Yeah. There's been testimony in Courts Martial that said that Rumsfeld was getting nightly briefings, but shouldn't he? He's secretary of defense. It doesn't seem like that should be a problem. Obviously it created a situation— There was tremendous pressure on these people at Abu Ghraib to get actual intelligence. Tremendous pressure. It doesn't seem inconsistent that Rumsfeld would be in on it. It's not a good thing—his involvement is probably not helpful. But it just makes sense. And it doesn't seem to be the worst of it.
MN: As you were collecting all these stories—which are so horrible—did you ever get story fatigue? Like, "I can't handle another torture story" or "I'm not sure I can write this book"?
TM: Sure. Of course, all the time. I had terrible nightmares. Terrible nightmares. Especially after the first trip to Jordan. It was awful. I'd wake up and be so scared. And for a while I was the only person who knew this stuff. It was creepy. And I would get stuff from people, they would hand me these things, people would say, "Oh, I hope I don't end up with a bullet in my head." That's scary stuff. And it's hard to judge what is a realistic threat on these people's lives and what is an actual threat. And the fact that people I knew got killed. It's really hard. It's the hardest thing ever. But I would think about Marla Ruzicka and think, oh I'm such a wuss, and then I would rally. But it was hard. A lot of times I wished I wasn't doing it. Times when I didn't want to do it all. I'd rather, you know, go have a latte. And I would lose patience with the detainees and with their stories if they were too whiney. I mean, I'm human.
[Ed. note: Marla Ruzicka was an activist aid-worker who organized to account and secure compensation for civilian victims of war. She was killed by a roadside bomb on Route 10, the deadly Airport Road in Iraq. She was twenty-eight years old.]
MN: Like the guy who has the list of things he wants to recover.
TM: Right, like the machete. But in the beginning, everyone would tell me about the material stuff: "I lost my money, they destroyed my car." I really had a hard time with it, because I was like "Somebody's dead. How can you be so obsessed with this loss of your property?" But then I was reading Thucydides. And it was really fascinating, because there was this heavy emphasis on loss and damage of property. And the reason is that that makes it difficult to rebuild society. If people are dead it is a tragedy. It is an individual tragedy. But if roads are destroyed and lands are ruined, that is a tragedy on a larger scale. So in numbing repetition of all this property damage in Thucydides, I saw this was something that was more important than I recognized. For these individual families, if their stores and farms were destroyed, and two of their children were killed, they would mourn the loss of their children, but they would also be faced with rebuilding their lives with no resources. So I had more sympathy for it.
MN: In addition to the trauma of having your physical space destroyed, so you don't have a reference point for what normality is in the same way if you don't have your home, or . . .
TM: And there is no taking away from these individual losses—they would talk about that, and it was clearly painful that these deaths had occurred, but it was understood better once I read Thucydides.
MN: How did you decide to read Thucydides?
TM: When I came back from the first or second trip, I was so messed up by it. I felt like I didn't know where to turn to get any wisdom. Who do you ask for help to try to understand something like this? On such a colossal man-is-evil scale? So I thought there've got to be the classics. And so many of the stories I was told seemed so classical. Like one of the farmers I interviewed described the death of his son in a helicopter attack. And how he lifted up the body of his nine-year-old son to show the pilot that his son had been killed, and that it was his son and his farm and to stop him from attacking again. And the image of this man holding the body of his child up toward the heavens seemed biblical or timeless.
MN: That was an amazing and disturbing scene.
TM: And I was messed up by it. So when I came back I went to St. Mark's Bookstore and looked for, like, the cartoon book of Thucydides [laughs], because I wanted help!
MN: That would actually be a good idea—a graphic novel of Thucydides.
TM: That would be a good idea—it is very graphic. But so that helped.
MN: And it makes sense. You were the only one getting these stories.
TM: The stories were there to be told! People weren't listening. It isn't like I had some secret access. It's very difficult to have people tell you of atrocities committed by your own country.
MN: You think that's why U.S. journalists . . .
TM: Yeah. Lots of journalists, before Abu Ghraib, knew of the abuses. But they didn't do the stories. They couldn't verify them. The support for the war was so high. They couldn't get it past the editors. Or they just didn't want to try it. Because it's upsetting. It's just upsetting.
MN: Which gets back to our original question: how do you write about something that no one wants to think about? And get the story out there. Especially when you've absorbed this mission that it's a story that has to be told.
TM: Right. My friends had a ban on torture for me. I wasn't allowed to talk about it.
TM: Which I understand. It was like I was this missionary.
MN: How long were you reporting the book?
TM: Two-and a half years. The ban was six months. It was lifted when I finished writing the book.
MN: You've been able to get good press for the book. There is interest. People aren't . . .
TM: I want people to read it. I worked very hard to make it readable. It's difficult material . . . but it's got the romance—it's got Graner and England.
MN: There's no question it's readable. It's just whether people want to confront this—especially Americans.
TM: Which is why I knew I had to make it about Americans. I couldn't make a book just about Iraqis.
MN: Do you think we are culturally predisposed to turn a blind eye to things that are difficult? We have 9/11, but we haven't experienced a war on our turf—nothing's been asked of us as a country since World War II.
TM: Yeah. This is a war in which there is no draft and our taxes have gone down. So where's the sacrifice? But as far as the book goes, I did this stuff for Marie Claire and Marie Claire reviewed it—that's a million readers. I'm pretty satisfied with the reach of the book. It's bigger than I could have expected.
MN: What would you like people to come away with from the book?
TM: I want them to know what happened. And the reason I want them to know what happened is that it is a betrayal of all the things we care about. And we have to understand exactly what happened, talk about it, and sort it out, and figure out what to do next. I really love this country. It was really disturbing to me to see what things were done in the name of America. That was such a shock. And it was a shock for Americans when the pictures were released about what was happening there. And so understanding how that dynamic took place is important so we know how not to let it happen again and also to think about what our role in the world is, and how we're seen. And how messed up it is.
And I don't want the war to be an abstraction. It's just not.