Does the New York Times have a Rolling Stone problem? The author of a celebrated op-ed, who confessed to having “tortured” while serving at Abu Ghraib, had previously said he played no role in prisoner abuse at the infamous Iraqi prison.
For most of the week after the New York Times published Eric Fair’s confession on December 10, 2014, to coincide with the release of the Feinstein report on interrogation, the op-ed was among the newspaper’s “most emailed” and “most viewed” articles. The first-person story was widely distributed on Twitter with praise for the author often accompanying a link to the story. Other prominent publications ran news stories about the Times op-ed.
The dramatic Times headline: “I Can’t Be Forgiven for Abu Ghraib.”
By the third paragraph, readers understand why he feels that way. “I was an interrogator at Abu Ghraib. I tortured,” Fair wrote. He repeated those two sentences verbatim later in the piece so there was no mistaking who he was and what he’d done.
It was an awkward construction, but it was clearly meant to give the impression that Fair had “tortured” while he “was an interrogator at Abu Ghraib.” The Times’s headline assumes culpability—why would he need to be forgiven if he hadn’t done anything wrong? And later in the piece, Fair expresses relief that younger Americans will no longer have a visceral reaction to the mention of the prison. “Abu Ghraib will fade. My transgressions will be forgotten.”
So did Eric Fair torture at Abu Ghraib? Judging from his previous statements, the answer appears to be an unqualified “no.”
First, the note on his New York Times op-ed tells us that Eric Fair was “a contract interrogator in Iraq in 2004.” The abuses at Abu Ghraib took place in 2003. The revolting photos of military police officers mistreating Iraqi detainees were taken between October and December 2003. According to the Taguba report, those photos were discovered on January 13, 2004, and CENTCOM released a statement about the investigation into detainee mistreatment on January 16, 2004. At that point, Abu Ghraib became perhaps the most heavily scrutinized U.S. military facility in Iraq.
“Abu Ghraib dominates every minute of every day for me,” Fair wrote in his op-ed. If that’s true today, it wasn’t true seven years ago, when Fair wrote the first of several first-person confessionals on prisoner abuse. In that piece, an argument that the United States hadn’t truly reckoned with the abuses at Abu Ghraib and published by the Washington Post on February 9, 2007, Fair did not even mention that he had worked at Abu Ghraib. Instead, he argued that his experience with detainees in Fallujah demonstrated that the prisoner abuse problem in Iraq was not limited to Abu Ghraib. It’d be an odd oversight: If you abused prisoners at the Iraqi facility best known for U.S. abuse of detainees, would you neglect to mention that fact in an article about Abu Ghraib and prisoner abuse?
But the main reasons to question the Times piece come from Fair himself. During a panel discussion in Brookline, Mass., on May 28, 2008, Fair described the use of sleep deprivation on prisoners and declared: “Although I had witnessed others employ this technique at places like Abu Ghraib, I had never done it myself.”
In an interview with Philadelphia NPR affiliate WHYY on February 20, 2008, Fair categorically denied “torturing” at Abu Ghraib. In an exchange about prisoner abuse, Fair told host Marty Moss Coane: “I’d been in Abu Ghraib. I’d seen some of these things going on. I’d not participated,” he said, accentuating “not” for emphasis. And a September 2007 profile in Philadelphia magazine reported of Fair’s time at Abu Ghraib: “No one ever instructed Fair to do anything torturous or sadistic, he says.”
There are other discrepancies. Fair wrote in the Times that he had “confessed everything to a lawyer from the Department of Justice and two agents from the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command.” But in an article he wrote for Washington Monthly in 2012, Fair wrote that he “appeared before Army and congressional investigators.” In his WHYY interview, he claims he “played a huge role in some of the things that went wrong,” but the only description he provides of his alleged “torture” was taking a robe from an Iraqi detainee in Fallujah and keeping him awake overnight.