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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
[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
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
TM: That would be a good idea—it is very graphic. But so
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
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.