Former Guantanamo Bay interrogator speaks about torture, conscience, and faith
Jennifer Bryson served as a lead interrogator at the infamous Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba between 2004 and 2006. She spoke with EWTN News In Depth’s Colm Flynn in an exclusive interview that aired on May 26, 2023, just days before Pope Francis released his prayer intention for June calling for an end to torture around the world. | Credit: EWTN News In Depth/YouTube
Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Jun 17, 2023 / 06:00 am
When Jennifer Bryson arrived in Guantanamo Bay to lead the interrogation team for detainees from Saudi Arabia, she immediately received two routine requests from interrogators to use methods that were not compatible with their training — methods that made her uncomfortable.
“I was simply expected to approve these because some interrogators had been doing this before, and they felt like, well, of course they should be doing this,” Bryson told Colm Flynn in an exclusive sit-down interview with EWTN News In Depth that aired on May 26, just days before Pope Francis released his prayer intention for June calling for an end to torture around the world.
Between 2004 and 2006, Bryson served as a lead interrogator at the infamous Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba. She arrived with an impressive resume — a bachelor’s degree from Stanford University in political science, a master’s degree from Yale University in history, and a doctorate from Yale in Greco-Arabic and Islamic studies, as well as experience working at the U.S. embassies in Yemen and Egypt, and previous work as a journalist.
After the attacks of 9/11, Bryson went to work for the U.S. Department of Defense, which included two years with the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), where she was asked to train as an interrogator and go to Guantanamo. “It wasn’t my idea,” she told Flynn. But she was happy to do something for her country.
“Even with all the political challenges today in America, we have something good going,” Bryson said. “As a teen I had studied in East Germany for two semesters and that opened my eyes and gave me an appreciation for some of the freedoms we have in the West and our political stability so … I wanted to offer to do what I could.”
Bryson, in her early 30s at the time, was the first woman and first civilian to take on the role of overseeing the interrogations of Saudi detainees, and carried out her own interrogations with high-level al-Qaeda prisoners.
She was also a Catholic convert.
Admittedly “not in a great place” spiritually when she took the job in Guantanamo, Bryson’s faith would grow during her time there and help her to make tough decisions. One of those was saying “no” from the get-go to torture and “enhanced interrogation methods” — a phrase she said in a Public Discourse article must be eliminated from discussion, as the methods implied by the phase do not “enhance” interrogation at all.
Team leader at Guantanamo
At its peak in 2003, the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay held about 600 prisoners; today, it holds approximately 30.
Bryson told EWTN News In Depth that in addition to conducting interrogations, a key role as a team chief in the U.S. military’s interrogation system was overseeing and approving 100% of the interrogations.
“The interrogator must have … a written plan for that individual interrogation, and the supervisor must sign off on that plan,” she explained in the EWTN interview. “This is a very important system that helps maintain order, and checks and balances, but it also assures that things are done with excellence for success, but also within the guidelines of what is allowed and not allowed.”
Not only were the methods Bryson was being asked to sign off on when she arrived not on the list of approved methods, but something in her gut felt “there is something wrong with this.”
Bryson leaned into her training and stuck to her convictions.
The problem with torture
In her Public Discourse article, as well as in the EWTN News In Depth interview, Bryson stressed that torture is an affront to human dignity on three levels.
“We may not like our enemies, but they are human beings; as such they deserve respect for their basic human dignity,” Bryson wrote in Public Discourse.
Torture also degrades the interrogator. ”[T]he interrogator is a human being. We need to think of them,” Bryson told Flynn. “What are we asking them to do that they have to live with for the rest of their life? And that person will go before God at his or her death. You have to consider it.”
Additionally, torture harms those who will suffer from intelligence failures — potential victims of otherwise preventable attacks that happen when excellence is not sought in the intelligence-gathering process.
“I believe that America, as a country that defends human dignity, is a country worth defending, and I want our country to remain in that position,” she wrote.
Rapport-building as the foundation
Bryson explained that the U.S. military’s method of interrogation is fundamentally based on rapport, which is a human connection between two people. “Building rapport is the first step that’s slow and difficult … [and] maintaining rapport is incredibly important.”
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Bryson said she saw the fruit of maintaining a commitment to rapport as the foundation for effective interrogation.
“[A]t the beginning, some people were distrustful and leery of me, especially when I had said no to these [“enhanced”] techniques. But I began working with my interrogators. I was conducting my own interrogations, and over weeks, we turned the whole Saudi team around,” Bryson told Flynn.
“And I don’t want to brag, so I’m hesitant to mention this, but I think it illustrates the fact that rapport-building is what works. When I arrived, the Saudi team, week after week after week, had zero reports. After my first deployment there at the end of six months, the Saudi team and my last briefing to the general had more reports than any other team on the island, and we did that through rapport building.”
Bending the rules?
Some argue that there are times and situations in which the boundaries of what is acceptable in interrogation situations should be stretched in order to obtain important information.
But Bryson strongly disagrees and said that the limits the U.S. military has placed on intelligence gathering have been developed with a tremendous deal of experience and thought.
“Because if you’re going to say, ‘Well, sometimes there might be cases where we ignore the limits.’ Well then how on earth do you define which situations those are? How do you define who’s going to make that decision?”
It is precisely in the extraordinary situations, the “ticking bomb” scenarios, where Bryson said the very best methods need to be used.
“One of the problems with torture is that people want to desperately make it stop and will say anything,” she said.
She pointed out that as Catholics, we have many examples from which to draw lessons.
“If we look at the history of the torture of saints, you can see that torture is used to try to get people to lie.” Bryson highlighted the example of the Diocletian persecutions in the early Church when a government that was hostile to Christians wanted them to publicly reject Christianity.
Torture and “enhanced techniques,” Bryson said, are not only ineffective for good intelligence gathering, they are harmful.
“You open up a huge risk if you say, ‘Well, we’ll try rapport, and if that doesn’t work, then … the gloves come off’ … you run the risk that somebody who simply is failing at interrogation can [say], ‘Well, rapport didn’t work … so I had to be harsh’ … rather than trying to figure out why is there difficulty in this particular situation.”
The role of faith
Bryson arrived at Guantanamo “discouraged and depressed” about aspects of the Church, but she began to find more spiritual footing through her experience of Catholic fellowship and the opportunity to attend Sunday Mass. Her faith “began to reopen and develop some solidity.” It helped her to not only be courageous, but to be effective as an interrogator as it played a role at times in building rapport with detainees.
“My job wasn’t to sit there and have just general generic faith discussions, however, at the same time, building trust is essential. And the fact that I am a believing Christian is part of who I am. And there were, of course, many aspects of my own private life that never, ever would have come into the interrogation room for security and safety reasons. But I did share [faith] with the detainees,” Bryson explained in the interview.
“For example, I had an interrogation on a Monday one time, and the detainee was very polite ... some of [these men] were very sophisticated and respectful — especially respectful to a woman who’s modestly dressed and who’s respectful to him — and he asked, ‘Well, I hope you had a nice weekend.’ And I mentioned, ‘Yeah, I had a nice weekend, and I went to church yesterday.’ Because their view of Americans was largely ‘Godless heathens,’ and they’re unaware that there are these huge differences inside of American society. And yes, some of them could relate to another person who was a believer.”
In addition, Bryson’s Catholic faith helped her better form her conscience, a process she came to see was not just about following “dos and don’ts” but about “being able to listen to and respond to God’s will.”
“I didn’t know anything about conscience formation when I went to Guantanamo. And I’d been a Catholic at that point for almost 13 years. I mean, I’d heard of it and I had some idea, but it sounds like a topic that’s a course that priests take in seminary that’s going to have lots of academic information about do this, don’t do that. What I realized in Guantanamo is, first of all, that formation really needs to happen before the difficult challenges come. And because we can’t predict when those come, the time for conscience formation is right now.”
Bryson also spoke in the interview about forgiveness and the role of justice.
“I do think that understanding that there is a cosmic level of justice and that each of us, as human beings, will meet our Maker does provide a broader perspective,” she said.
Bryson told Flynn that her experience in Guantanamo had a huge impact on her. “It was the most radical experience I’ve had in my life with what it means to be a human being. When you’ve got to sit and talk with somebody who is an enemy, who tells you that they would be happy to kill you, and you’re able to sit there and have a conversation, usually over tea, it is an astonishing human experience and it helped me understand, for example, why we are called to pray for our enemies. Our enemies are part of being human along with us.”
Bryson’s faith and courage during and since Guantanamo has earned her the admiration and respect of people such as Robert P. George, McCormick professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University.
“The first thing that strikes people about Jennifer Bryson is her courage,” George told CNA. “For example, her physical courage in serving as an interrogator in Guantanamo and her even more impressive moral courage in speaking boldly in support of the sanctity of human life in all stages and conditions; marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife; and religious freedom and the rights of conscience.”
“As one gets to know her better, though,” George continued, “it becomes clear that behind her courage is a profound faith in Christ. Jennifer does not rely on her own resources but rather on Jesus as her ultimate source of strength. When I reflect on Jennifer’s work and witness, it always brings to mind that wonderful old hymn ‘Leaning on the Everlasting Arms’: ‘What have I to dread? What have I to fear, leaning on the everlasting arms. I have blessed peace, with my Lord so near, leaning on the everlasting arms!’”
Bryson is currently a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in the Catholic Women’s Forum and lives in Heiligenkreuz, Austria, where she is a visiting researcher at the European Institute for Philosophy and Theologie at Hochschule Heiligenkreuz. She is translating works by Catholic writer Ida Friederike Görres from German to English and studying the work of Augustin Rösler, CSsR on “the woman question.”
Watch the full EWTN News In Depth interview with Bryson about her time in Guantanamo below.
Gina Haspel, President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the CIA, oversaw a secret prison in Thailand where US intelligence targets were reportedly subject to waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation” techniques.