April 23rd, 2009
09:31 PM ET

Officer 'unpopular' for opposing interrogations

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From NPR's All Things Considered: An Air Force interrogator tried to stop the harsh techniques he witnessed in Iraq when he went there in 2003. But his efforts to halt abusive interrogations were rebuffed and, in his words, made him "the most unpopular officer" in Iraq.

Col. Steven Kleinman, an Air Force reservist and experienced intelligence officer, was mentioned in a report issued Wednesday by the Senate Armed Services on the abusive treatment of terrorism detainees.

The committee report mentions officials who went along with methods of questioning that some say amounted to torture. But it also mentions officers such as Kleinman, who was a lieutenant colonel at the time he tried to stop the use of those techniques.

Kleinman spoke with NPR's Robert Siegel about the situation he encountered when he was chosen to lead a team of interrogators questioning Iraqi insurgents during the early part of the war. He says he did not know until he arrived in Iraq that he would be witnessing an interrogation strategy that U.S. military personnel were trained to resist, in a program known as "SERE," to avoid techniques that produced bad intelligence.

Here are excerpts of that conversation:

SIEGEL: SERE. Explain what that was.

KLEINMAN: SERE is an acronym for survival, evasion, resistance and escape, and specifically, what we're talking about here is resistance-to-interrogation training, which is a very formal set of strategies and methods to resist hostile interrogation.

The origins of this as I understand it were during the Cold War - the U.S. trained its people in what might happen to them if they were taken hostage, say as POWs in Korea by the Chinese?

Precisely so. Even before the Korean War, during the Soviet show trials that occurred shortly after World War II, we as the U.S. government observed very odd and inexplicable behavior - people claiming to be CIA agents who weren't on the CIA payroll. More intelligence came in to describe these ? interrogation methods that were being used to compel people to produce what can be described as propaganda - a mixture of truth with a heavy overlay of falsehoods.

What you're describing is taking techniques that U.S. military personnel had been trained to resist ... [and] using those very techniques on the people the U.S. was detaining in Iraq?

Exactly, and I think a key point that your listeners need to understand, so they can grasp the gravity of the situation, is that the primary objective of that approach to interrogation was not truth ? but somebody's political truth. In the Korean War, they actually compelled some of our pilots to admit to dropping chemical weapons on cities and so forth, when in fact that didn't happen. Now, that stands in stark contrast to intelligence interrogation, where the overriding objective is provide timely, accurate, reliable, comprehensive intelligence.

And these harsh interrogation methods had been used by the Soviets and the Chinese to get people to say things that weren't true?

That's true. And it's not just harsh physically, but I think the element that was more persuasive was their ability to induce what is known as debility, depression and dread through emotional and psychological techniques that profoundly altered somebody's ability to answer questions truthfully even if they wanted to. It truly undermined their ability to recall, so therefore it would call into question its efficacy in an intelligence-based interrogation.

I want you to describe the interrogation that's included in the Senate report. You witnessed an Iraqi detainee in a room that has been completely darkened?

Yes, I walked into this room, and it was a small room with the walls painted black. There was an interrogator sitting in a chair. To his left was an interpreter. The detainee was kneeling with his wrists handcuffed behind his back before the interrogator. Standing behind the interrogator was a guard carrying a - I don't recall now if it was wood or iron rod - and it was almost stereotypical, being patted into his hand like it was some B movie, gangster movie, if you will.

And the questions were posed to the detainee, interpreted. The detainee would answer, the answer was interpreted, and upon that interpretation, the interrogator would slap him across the face. For those who have read the report, they talk about in survival training, an "insult slap." It's very important to understand that those are affected in a very careful fashion, and to truly shock someone rather than hurt them. And this type of slap was much more forceful. The other difference is, it was being delivered systematically, and when I walked in, I asked how long it had been going on, and I was told "30 minutes." So this individual had been slapped continuously while he was on his knees for 30 minutes.

What did you make of that interrogation?

In my mind, that was no longer an interrogation. You don't obtain information of any value that way. It was punitive, precisely, so I quickly brought that to a stop.

I pulled the interrogator out and I explained why that was against the law. I tried to explain why it wasn't operationally useful. He followed orders, because he had to, because I was a senior officer, but you could tell he didn't buy into my rationale by any stretch.

Had you witnessed one rotten interrogation that had gone wrong or was it routine?

It didn't take long to realize this was a systematic approach. And it wasn't because there were bad apples or these people had some flaws in their character. It was just that there were operators out there on the ground who needed what we call "actionable intelligence" - reliable intelligence for them to run an operation within 24 hours, and they simply were not receiving that from their interrogators using the standard interrogation methodology, which was designed for a completely different war and a completely different time.

And so, people were reaching out to other methods, not understanding the subtle yet profound difference - using a method that was proven successful in obtaining propaganda, while on the surface it seems very effective, underneath it all it is very ineffective and counterproductive. ? Any individual can force any other individual to admit to practically anything, but that's not the purpose of interrogation. I could see these people had lost the bubble on that.

There's a mention in the report of how you were received by some of these U.S. servicemen. To understate it, it was not well?

I think it would be a fair statement to say I was the most unpopular officer in that area, if not in the entire country of Iraq ? There was one gentleman who was acting very odd toward me, and one time I walked by his tent, and it just happened to be the two of us, and he was sharpening a knife, and he looked up, and he said that "it wouldn't be recommended that I sleep too lightly while I was at that camp." It didn't take me long to understand his meaning.

You were that unpopular. He was suggesting some harm might come to you?

And the reason I was unpopular is that people couldn't understand why I had stopped an interrogation, and the rationale that I heard repeatedly was ?"If I had been captured by al-Qaida or some of these insurgents, that's how I would expect to be treated." And my response was always ? "Let us not let the adversary set the standard, especially if it causes us to lower our standard."

Filed under: 360° Radar • Torture
soundoff (10 Responses)
  1. Sungbum

    I think, yeah, there're "hidden".

    April 24, 2009 at 10:11 am |
  2. Michael "C" Lorton, Virginia

    [Any] war has its hidden "virtures."

    April 24, 2009 at 9:51 am |
  3. Terry, TX

    Why did this article not put the disclaimer... he is selling a book. Next.

    April 24, 2009 at 9:46 am |
  4. Richard Hanks Psy D

    Why is the Geneva Convention RARELY mentioned in any NEWS conversations or Productions? This is an IMPORTANT issue, signed by the United States of America!!
    Sincerely, Richard Hanks Psy D.

    April 24, 2009 at 9:28 am |
  5. starr

    tell me again about patriotism.
    worry about the rights you have here,
    would you have the [same] rights there?
    come one this is a war right ? look up the word, jhad.
    what if getting that info saved a
    then tell me what bad boys the last admin was.

    April 24, 2009 at 5:55 am |
  6. ted randall

    i just saw mr. bennett say that "waterboarding" isn't torture because we do it to are troops. he is talking about the sere program. in this program are troops undergo training on what may happen to them if they are captured and "illegally tortured". if he uses this logic then he is impeaching himself in the same statement that he defends torture. there is no arguement, what we did was torture. that is what this president has to deal with, that is what we as americans has to deal with. we can not, as a people turn a blind eye and justify torture by using another noun. let us not use false pride to lie to ourself or the world on something that we know what we did was wrong. we must be big enough, strong enough, and brave enough to say," this is wrong and it will never happen again", and punish those responisble.

    April 24, 2009 at 1:42 am |
  7. Maddog

    when we where in the service they put us though everything that you could emagine, so now are you going to put are nco's and officers in jail ?? the people we are fighting you know the terrist they want all but the nutjob's killed or at least beheaded, they do not play by any rules so why should we ?? they will stab you in the back then rape your 5 year old little girl while they are laughing at you all the way. and since we are not suppose to do anything at all that is not right which is a joke since you will be dead before the cops or service people show up so what the point. !!!! I beleave in one thing now after coming home from Vietnam kill them all let there God sort them out

    April 23, 2009 at 11:00 pm |
  8. ChucK

    I have never wrote on anyone's blog, but due to my disbelief I have to speak up. It amazes me that someone like William Bennett would stand up for the Bush administration using the mantra that are own military goes through this type of training.
    This is not true, I was in the Air Force for 28 years and I never went through any type of training like this. This type of training is normally for military personnel who were going into dangerous locations and had specific dangerous missions. And while it may use in training one service's personnel, it is not widespread across all the four military services.

    The reason they received this training is because they were being trained to expect this type of torture from our enemy states who our country felt would not respect Prisoner of War conditions laid out in the Geneva Convention.

    Every year of my career I had to complete a training review called the Law of Armed Conflict about how to treat enemy POWs humanely. It also spoke on how these conditions didn't apply to enemy combatants. Is there any reason now to wonder why the Bush administration had those who fought us in Iraqi and other terrorist havens declared as enemy combatants?
    They knew the men would not break under approved interrogations and had to change the playing field. Therefore they had to declare wateboarding legal.

    We as americans can defeat our enemies without compromising our morale values.

    Let the prosecutions fall where they may. Where was Mr. Bennett's outrage when the military members were prosecuted for their actions at Abu Ghirab prison. We now know, ( even though we knew then) these lower ranking members could not have been performing these acts of interrogations on their own.

    April 23, 2009 at 10:39 pm |
  9. Patton

    if you can not thoroughly effectively interrogate prisoners there is no need to take prisoners. Without effective interrogation you would only be taking hostages that their comrades don't care about. This is also ineffective.. OBL should not be taken alive.

    April 23, 2009 at 10:18 pm |
  10. Cindy

    I was initially appalled by the method of torture....but as it is all coming out now. Think back. Did the 9/11 terrorists care anything about compasion? What was held in the past to be sacred as good intent has been eradicated by the likes of the people we are now dealing with. There is no humanity in their eyes only hatred.
    Cindy in Wisconsin

    April 23, 2009 at 10:05 pm |