Richard Armitage

Deputy Secretary of State

Richard Armitage, who served as Deputy Secretary of State under Colin Powell from 2001 through 2005, was on the frontlines of the Bush administration's response to the September 11th terrorist attacks. A 1967 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and fluent in Vietnamese, Armitage was trained in the elite Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape school before he was deployed to Vietnam, where he completed three combat tours. During his SERE training, Armitage was waterboarded, a practice he says is clearly "torture." Armitage served as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs in the Department of Defense from 1983 to 1989, among many government posts and assignments. He is now president of Armitage International, a consulting firm.

Richard Armitage on...

Interview: January 8, 2008
Edited Transcript

You've told me, and I understood that you went to SERE school.

It was to prepare you as best one could for what might happen, should you become a prisoner for the enemy, and it taught you how to survive, how to evade, how to resist, and hopefully, if you were in a prison camp, how to escape, hence the name SERE.

Tell me a bit about your experience.

We were sent to -- after a day and night on the beach at North Island, we were sent somewhere in Northern California. I don't know where. And we were given a problem to start at point A and try to evade the enemy and get to point B. And that was the problem that was explained to me and we were going to be sent out to do this. But on the way, in trucks to get to Point A, my particular class was ambushed. We heard a lot of shooting outside the truck, some strange fellows with accents and strange uniforms with stars on their caps pulled us out of the back of the truck, started slapping us around, and the next thing I knew, we were in a prison camp.

Were you hooded?

I was not hooded. We were marched off to the prison camp, and we were in a camp with our colleagues, doing mindless exercises and sometimes being sprayed with water to keep us cold and sleeping in bunks, which had springs and no mattresses, things of that nature.

Did they try to keep you awake, what we now call sleep deprivation?

Not per se, other than the fact that you were living in what I thought was a very cold and, you know, in a hut that had only springs and no mattress or anything of that nature. They would interrogate you and slap you around a bit, threaten your shipmates and things of that nature. They put me in a confined space of a -- it turned out to be a small casket. And I was down on my knees and elbows and they closed it in the dark. And they talked about putting a snake on top of me. And it just happens that I was scared to death of snakes. And the top of the box opened. Something was thrown over my neck, and the box was slammed down. It turned out to be a radiator fan belt that had been cut in half. But as far as I was concerned, I was in a small space with a snake and scared to death.

Did they go through exercises that tried to humiliate you?

To some extent, one of the things they did, making fun of the way I looked or something like that. They took a second-class petty officer, I remember quite well, and stood him beside me against the wall. And they were interrogating me and every time I would answer with only my name, rank or serial number, they'd hit him. Now, they weren't hitting with closed fists. But they were quite dramatic. They would slap and kick the wall behind him at the same time, giving, at least if you weren't looking at it, you were just hearing it, and seeing out of the corner of your eye, the appearance that this was a very brutal beating. It was not. But it was realistic enough.

But they were suggesting to you that if you didn't answer, your compatriot was being --

Well, and particularly as an officer -- this was an enlisted man. So they were trying to put pressure on me and trying to get him to say, "Please sir, tell them what they need to know." That was another occasion where they'd -- as an officer, I was put in charge of the one water faucet spigot in the camp and I had some folks, I don't know if was staged or not. They came up and begged me to give them water. And I wouldn't give one water without the whole camp being able to get water. And this one petty officer was begging and begging me and then got a little physical with me. It may have been a plant. But there was those kinds of things, just to teach you to keep your mind and your wits about you and ultimately, the leadership of our camp was waterboarded.

And you were a part of the leadership?

Yeah, I was down the food chain a bit, but they got to me. And the point that they were trying to teach was not only the helplessness one feels in the case of waterboarding, but the fact that you have to have a chain of command, and when they remove the top of the chain of command, the next one steps up. The next one steps up. It's the best way, over time, to get them to stop. If no one breaks, there's a reason over time to stop this treatment.

Can you describe to me the experience of being waterboarded?

I can only describe mine. I was put on an incline. My legs were like that and my back went down. I can't remember if it was a wet T-shirt or a wet towel was put over my nose and mouth, and it was completely soaked. But I could still breathe. And then a question would be asked and I would not answer, and water would slowly be poured in this. And the next time I took a breath, I'd be drawing in water, whether I took it from my mouth or my nose. For me, it was simply a feeling of helplessness.

I've talked to a former SERE instructor who was also waterboarded, and he said there's nothing simulated about it. You think you are drowning.

Except in the case that I did realize I was in Northern California, and I did realize the people doing this were actually on my side. But the sensation to me was one of total helplessness, and I've had a lot of sensations in my life, but helplessness was not generally one of them. But the sensation was enormously unpleasant and frightening to me.

So would you describe it as torture?

Absolutely. No question.

So how do you explain the recent indecision over whether or not waterboarding is torture?

I cannot believe that my nation is having a discussion on what is torture. There is no question in my mind -- there's no question in any reasonable human being, there shouldn't be, that this is torture. I'm ashamed that we're even having this discussion.

How did those techniques, copied from our enemies, become techniques that we, the United States, have been using on our prisoners?

Please, let's separate out the SERE training, which had about it not to torture individuals but prepare them for the possibility of torture and life under an enemy prison camp. That's one thing. I, myself, am extraordinarily glad that I'm -- as you said, a graduate of the SERE school. The question of torture in the U.S., I have no idea how it came about. I think it's part of our fear and anger that we were displaying after 9/11. As you know, for the most part, the Department of State was left out of this discussion. I think precisely because we'd have no part of it.

Certainly the video that we see now from back at that time suggests that almost from the get-go, captives, prisoners were not treated in the traditional military fashion.

I think it was probably different at every different location. I think certainly, that was the case in some locations. And others, I suspect, people were treated with somewhat more dignity. I'm critical of many of the aspects of this detention policy. I was critical at the time and I'm critical now. I don't think it's befitting of our nation. But I think we must all remember that right after 9/11, the first time in a very real way we've been struck, we were always protected by our two great oceans. There was a great feeling of being adrift and lost and wondering if we were on entirely new ground and an entirely new terra firma or terror incognito. So I think it takes a while for things like that to settle down. Meanwhile, the rhetoric that was ensuing from both my administration and from the Congress was do anything we need to do to protect ourselves, sort of almost a license to go overboard. And everyone, everyone was guilty of that.

The more I work on this and go round and round, the more so much that has followed in terms of interrogation policies seem to follow the decision to opt out of the Geneva Convention.

Well, I think it follows what I said earlier about sort of a new situation, new territory, not know where we're going, not being -- the armies and militaries are very good to fight against nations and they're less good to fight against ideas. And so we were trying to wrestle with how to fight both an enemy and an idea and I think came up with a wrongheaded solution opting out of Geneva. We, after all, want our soldiers, should they be unfortunate enough to be captured, to be treated in a proper way. And yet, we weren't willing to afford that to others. That seems a little counter-intuitive to me. It did at the time, and it does now.

Among the people I've talked to is former Army T-JAG Tom Romig. And he talked to me about the bright lines that are necessary on the battlefield, partly tools for the commanders and that once those bright lines begin to be fuzzed, it can be a dangerous situation.

First of all, I don't think anyone who hasn't been there and hadn't heard the angry iron flying on, hadn't been scared to death, realizes exactly what he was talking about. We have bright lines, because you have people that are very -- the blood's up, they're very excited. They're very scared. And if you don't have real stop signs or real bright lines, then it's easy to drift over in the heat of the moment, particularly if you're seeing your own colleagues shot and killed and wounded and knowing that people are trying to kill you. This is why the army and the military in general has always historically had bright lines. This is why the army manual specifically outlaws certain treatments to include by the way, waterboarding. Because they want to make it very crystal clear, what is acceptable behavior and what is not.

And you remove that tool from a commander and what is the danger?

Well, that troops and officers will, in the heat of the moment, in a desire to get "actionable intelligence," et cetera, they'll exceed what good common sense and good moral judgment requires.

As with the earlier decisions, how informed was the Department of State, the Secretary, about the decision to opt out of the Geneva Conventions?

We had, as I recall, we had indicated our dismay. I think the general counsel, William Taft did this in a series of memos. We were overruled. This happens in bureaucracy. We felt we were on the correct side of the issue. It wasn't a matter of cover or CYA for us, it was a matter of doing what we thought was best for the nation, and we lost that discussion, unfortunately, in my view.

What was his concern, not just as Secretary of State, but as a military man, about opting out of the Geneva Conventions?

Well, it's obvious. First of all, his concern was broader than that simply of a military man. In his military mind, he'd be thinking of we want people to be treated, our people to be treated in an appropriate manner. So if we do not give those same protections to others, then it gives them an excuse to treat our prisoners of war in an untoward manner. Broader than that, he had concerns for what this was saying to the international community about international agreements and international safeguards. Were we unilateralists? Were we straying from our traditional values? I mean, it was the United States, a tradition to be the leader in protection of human freedoms, human rights, et cetera. Transparency, rule of law. So his -- you can't separate out strictly his military mind from his duties as Secretary of State. Our views were well known in this matter. We were not on board.

Well, as I say, we weren't -to my knowledge, we weren't part of those discussions. If that's what Judge Gonzales concluded, then that's what he reported to the president. But that, for me, that would have been a warning flag. It would have been at least a flashing yellow light, if not a flashing red light.


Well, if you were twisting yourselves into knots because you're fearful that you may be avoiding some war crimes, then you're probably tripping too closely to the edge. The fact that you want to have a discussion about how to avoid being accused of war crimes would indicate that you're pretty close to the edge to me.

Looking back and knowing what you know about the bureaucracy, as you called it, does it seem to you that policy decisions, many policy decisions, had already been made and some of these legal opinions were coming behind?

If you're speaking specifically of legal policy decisions and what not, it certainly seems that way or perhaps the way I would have put it is that more like-minded individuals got together to discuss how best to put these forth. People who might have a contrary point of view were left out of the room.

When did you find out about the so-called, the now infamous "torture memo" that we now know had been written in August 2002.

I found out after I had left government.

But you were still in government when the Abu Ghraib photographs first --


And what was your reaction?

When I saw the photos, I realized we had a huge problem on our hands, and for me, it was actually first and foremost, not a public relations problem. It was order and discipline problem that somehow command relationships had broken down, because soldiers don't act this way unless there's aberration, an aberration in the chain of command. That's the first thing that bothered me a lot, and then beyond that, torture and degradation and all that. But the first thing that struck me was this is a good order and discipline problem that I've not seen in the military.

I read several of your statements in the aftermath of the revelation of Abu Ghraib in which you said you couldn't "have been sorrier" and you couldn't "have been angrier."

Yeah, I was -here we were fighting a war trying to win hearts and minds among other things, and here we're acting in a way, particularly with Arabs, which is totally contrary to that. But I was more upset about what it said about our military, the breakdown in, as I said, good order and discipline.

I've talked to some people who have said essentially to me, thank God that there were people who stopped, who didn't do what we've seen in the photographs.

The great majority of them didn't do what we saw in the photographs. Thank God. But you know, we put our men and women in uniform on such a pedestal and I think deservingly so, that when one falls, the reverberations are heard everywhere. And so these few bad apples caused us, I think, an enormous black eye. We worked out of it? Yeah. We can. We're not totally out of it yet. We can work our way out of it.

How do we get out of it?

I think, frankly, we have to be more inclined to fall back on what was traditional with the United States, and that is that we want to do -- we want to say and do things that match. So our words and our actions should match. We ought to listen to, if you'll allow me to paraphrase Mr. Lincoln, "the better angels of our nature." When we do that, when we act in a way that's consistent with our national values, then I believe the United States is the one indispensable nation. And an indispensable nation is what the great majority of the world needs.

I've read you recently quoted as saying, we're right now, or in the recent past at least, have been exporting more fear than hope.

After 9/11 in our fear and anger, that's been the export. We turned a snarling face to the world. That is not the face of the United States that the world is used to seeing or wants to see. We've always been, again, to paraphrase now Mr. Reagan, "that shining city on the hill" and our words and our actions matched. And for the United States to talk about protection of human rights, talk about the rule of law, and then for us to violate human rights and to not extend writ of habeas corpus, this puts a great Grand Canyon between our walls and our actions. And this is not like the United States.

There's an almost universal desire for a less arrogant United States. The irony here is Mr. Bush said, President Bush 43 said in his campaign in 2001, as I was there, that he wanted to be great in the conduct of foreign policy without being arrogant. And somewhere after 9/11, we all became too arrogant and less great. And I think the world wants to go back to a more humble, a much more accommodating United States.

A number of people that we've talked to in the course of this have worried to me about what they call the "normalization" of torture in this country. Something that was never imagined. Torture happened to Americans. Do you share those concerns?

I think I take away from it - the majority view was that torture was abhorrent to Americans and our way of life. And that I was taught as a Naval Academy graduate that principle was involved to be deaf to expediency. And I think that's the majority view in our country. So I prefer to see some good coming out of this discussion of torture, after saying I'm horrified that we even have it. And the good will come out, is we will rethink our activities and see if this is the way we want to proceed or not. And I think the majority view is no. We will, where principle is involved, be deaf to expediency.

And what about Guantanamo?

Well, this is a confusing situation for me. The president said publicly he'd like to close it tomorrow and that -- finds it hard to do. I don't buy it. We incarcerate thousands and thousands of young men and some women each month, and accommodate them in our prisons. There must be a way to find housing for 400 or so people. And it would be a great symbolic closure to get rid of Guantanamo. And I'm not suggesting that people are mistreated there or anything of that nature. But it's become a symbol. And if you have a symbol that's negative, let's get rid of it. We ought to be able to accommodate them in some fashion in our prisons.

What does the next president, whoever he or she may be, do?

Well, it looks like whatever the next president, he may do, but what he may do, I think would be to close Guantanamo ASAP, in my view, yesterday. And secondarily, I think that whoever is president will have in the initial stages a pretty easygoing, if they'll engage in a proper type of public diplomacy, and by that, I mean a public diplomacy where we go out around the world and we actually listen to others. There's no question. They know what our views are on different subjects. The real question is, do we know what they have to say? I think if the next president does that, he'll be well on his way to reestablishing American preeminence as a force for good.