At age 22, a Pennsylvania native and college graduate named Erik Saar enrolled in the Army. He had never traveled west of the Mississippi or to another continent. He had been married to his high school sweetheart for three years, but the union had been rocky. Saar hoped that the separation the couple would have to endure would clarify their feelings for one another.
Saar was also eager to get experience that would help him find a civilian job in intelligence after his four years of service were over. Since there were no interrogation slots available, Saar writes, his recruiter sold him on the idea of becoming a linguist; that path would make him eligible for student loan repayment, training at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., top secret clearance and military intelligence work.
After learning Modern Standard Arabic at the institute, Saar received various assignments, including a one-month language immersion training assignment at what turned out to be a radical Islamic school in Cairo, Egypt. On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Saar arranged chairs on an Arizona military base parade field for a scheduled ceremony.
Then America went to war, and Saar got opportunities both to use his knowledge of Arabic and to ply the intelligence trade. In the fall of 2002, eager for the chance to help interrogate terrorism suspects, he volunteered for a six-month stint as a translator at Guantánamo Bay.
Soon after he arrived at the base, in December 2002, Sgt. Saar saw indications that the assignment could be troublesome, he writes in his 2005 memoir, Inside the Wire: A Military Intelligence Soldier’s Eyewitness Account of Life at Guantanamo Bay. Saar’s first assignment was to a team that helped guards, medics and others communicate with prisoners during day-to-day interactions. Not only was it not the intelligence work he wanted, his team members almost immediately began to hint at tensions in his squad.