IN March 2004, at Forward Operating Base St. Mere outside Falluja, Iraq, I was walking home from work. Ferdinand Ibabao, my close friend and fellow contractor, was walking with me. It had been a long day of interrogations, so we were looking forward to checking emails, and hearing about what our families were up to back home.
As we walked through a large open field on the base, the distinct sound of incoming mortar rounds interrupted our conversation. We’d been talking about finding new contracting jobs in Iraq. Conducting interrogations at places like Abu Ghraib and Falluja was beginning to take a toll. We both agreed it was time to move on to something less complicated, something that didn’t force us to set aside our humanity in order to go to work.
As the mortars detonated nearby, Ferdinand, always one to joke, ran around like a baseball player trying to catch a pop fly shouting “I got it, I got it!” He said it would be a mercy killing.
I found myself thinking about Ferdinand and his dark humor after Ted Cruz and Donald J. Trump unapologetically endorsed the use of waterboarding at a Republican debate early last month. “I’d bring back waterboarding,” Mr. Trump said, “and I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.”
I don’t know what drives a man to say such things. I just know that when they do, men like Ferdinand and me will be forced to shoulder the consequences.
In my role as a civilian contractor for the Department of Defense, I spent the first three months of 2004 torturing Iraqi prisoners. At the time, we were calling it enhanced interrogation, but that’s a phrase I don’t use anymore. Stress positions, slaps to the face and sleep deprivation were an outrage to the personal dignity of Iraqi prisoners. We humiliated and degraded them, and ourselves.
Ferdinand and I spent the early months of 2004 implementing the country’s interrogation program, we struggled to contain the growing sense that we had shocked our consciences and stained our souls. Our interrogations used approved techniques. We filed paperwork, followed guidelines and obeyed the rules. But with every prisoner forced up against a wall, or made to stand naked in a cold cell, or prevented from falling asleep for significant periods of time, we felt less and less like decent men. And we felt less and less like Americans.
I’ve been speaking publicly since 2007 about my time as an interrogator. I’m often asked when was the first time I knew I had gone too far? When did I know I had crossed a line? I’ve offered conflicting accounts in response to this question over the last decade. For a time, I said I had crossed the line when I participated in the sleep deprivation of a prisoner in Falluja. But I’ve also wondered if I didn’t cross the line the first time I was in the “hard site” at Abu Ghraib, or the first time I used a stress position, or the first time I told an Iraqi prisoner that he’d never see his family again. Maybe I crossed the line the minute I decided to be an interrogator in Iraq. I change the answers not out of a desire to deceive, but out of an inability to make sense of just how easy it was to become an American torturer.
When Donald Trump and Ted Cruz suggested that waterboarding and other abhorrent interrogation tactics should not be considered illegal, I was tempted to exonerate myself. I did not waterboard anyone in Iraq. I’d like to think that’s a line I would never cross. But I have no right to think that way. My behavior in Iraq forces me to confess that if I’d been asked to waterboard someone at Abu Ghraib in early 2004, I most likely would not have hesitated. I’d have crossed that line, too.
If I had the opportunity to speak to other interrogators and intelligence professionals, I would warn them about men like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. I would warn them that they’ll be told to cross lines by men who would never be asked to do it themselves, and they’ll cross those lines long before they consider anything like waterboarding. And I would warn them that once they do cross the line, those men will not be there to help them find their way back.
Ferdinand eventually found a new job in Iraq. He also eventually caught that pop fly. He was killed by a suicide bomber in the Green Zone in October 2004. Three other American contractors were killed with him.
I returned to Iraq in 2005, and while I never caught that pop fly, there are still days I wish that I had, that I’d received my mercy killing. As an interrogator, torture forced me to set aside my humanity when I went to work. It’s something I’ve never been able to fully pick back up again. And it’s something we must never ask another American to do.
Eric Fair is the author of the forthcoming memoir “Consequence,” about his experience in Iraq.