ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
In the Senate Armed Services Committee report on harsh interrogation techniques, the report that was released yesterday, many civilian officials and uniformed officers were cited for approving of abusive practices that violated international law. But not everyone who was mentioned in the report approved of or went along with what they saw. One striking exception was Colonel Steven Kleinman, an Air Force reservist and experienced interrogator who went to Iraq in 2003. His testimony is cited several times in the Senate report, and he joins us from member station KAZU in Seaside, California.
Welcome to the program.
Colonel STEVEN KLEINMAN (US Air Force Reserves): Thank you very much for having me.
SIEGEL: First, why were you sent to Iraq?
Col. KLEINMAN: Primarily, at least my understanding upon deployment was I was chosen by my rank to be the leader of the team, and also by my experience as an interrogator, that at that time had served as interrogator in two previous military conflicts in Panama and in the first Gulf War. What I did not really know or understand until I entered country was that I was going to be part of an effort to introduce SERE strategies, as it's been described, into the repertoire of interrogators.
SIEGEL: SERE, S-E-R-E. Explain what that was.
Col. 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.
SIEGEL: And these harsh interrogation methods had been used by the Soviets and the Chinese to get people to say things that weren't true.
Col. KLEINMAN: 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. I mean, it truly undermined their ability to recall, so therefore it would call into question its efficacy in an intelligence-based interrogation.
SIEGEL: I want you to describe the interrogation that you described and that's included in the Senate report. You witnessed an Iraqi detainee in a room that has been completely darkened.
Col. KLEINMAN: Yes, I walked into this room. 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, very important to understand that those are affected in a very careful fashion, to really shock someone rather than hurt them. This type of slap was not the same. It 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.
SIEGEL: What did you make of that interrogation?
Col. KLEINMAN: Well, first of all, in my mind, not to parse words too finely, but that was no longer an interrogation. You don't obtain information of any value that way.
SIEGEL: It was punitive, what you were looking at.
Col. KLEINMAN: Exactly. It was punitive, precisely. And so I quickly brought that to a stop. I pulled the interrogator out and I explained why it was against the law. I tried to explain why it wasn't operationally useful. He followed orders because he had to, because, you know, I was a senior officer, but you could tell he didn't buy into my rationale by any stretch.
SIEGEL: Well, had you witnessed, in your view, one rotten interrogation gone wrong, or was it routine that you were getting a glimpse of?
Col. KLEINMAN: It didn't take long to realize that that was sort of a systematic approach. And, you know, it wasn't because there was bad apples or these people had some flaws in their character. It's just there were operators out there on the ground who needed what we call actionable 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, again, understanding the subtle yet profound difference - you know, using a method that has been proven successful in obtaining propaganda. While on the surface it seems very effective, underneath it all, it is very ineffective and counter-productive in getting the type of information you want.
Because you can force - any individual can force any other individual to admit to practically anything, you know, but that's not the purpose of interrogation. I could see these people had lost the bubble on that.
SIEGEL: There's a mention in the Senate Armed Services Committee report of how you were received by some of these U.S. servicemen. To understate it, it was not well. You were - there's an exchange with a fellow who's sharpening a knife. I'd like you to recount that for a moment.
Col. KLEINMAN: Well, as a general overview, I think it would be a fair statement to say that I was the most unpopular officer in that area, if not in the entire country of Iraq by that point. It varied from I'd walk into the mess tent, you know, where we had our meals. I'd sit down at a table and people would get up and move away. There was one gentleman who was acting very odd towards me. And one time he - 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 that it wouldn't be recommended that I sleep too lightly while I was at that camp.
SIEGEL: You were that unpopular, he was suggesting. Some harm might come to you, as far as he was concerned.
Col. KLEINMAN: Exactly. That's - you know, perhaps there was some nuance that I missed, but I - that's the way I understood it. And the reason I was unpopular was people couldn't understand why I stopped their interrogation. And the rationale that I heard repeatedly was if I had been captured by al-Qaida or by these insurgents, that's how I would expect to be treated. And my response was always that, yes, because you're never going to be captured by United States forces. You know, let us not let the adversary set the standard, especially if it causes us to lower our standard. You know, what makes us who we are and who we've become by standing on the shoulders of giants as this national character that does not bend to anybody standards but our own. And yet we had begun to do that.
SIEGEL: But in terms of the legality of what was done or the illegality of what was done, interrogators who abused their detainees, from what I'm hearing you, could, in fact, be tried for what they were doing. They might appeal and say, well, I was following orders or nobody told me no. But if those were unlawful orders, they could be prosecuted for what they did. Yet should they be?
Col. KLEINMAN: That's a very complex question, as you well understand. Let me answer it in a sort oblique way. If we were to decide that these junior interrogators were to be prosecuted, to do so in absence of the same sanctions being placed upon the seniors in their chain of command all the way up to as high as the responsibility should go would be a travesty. You know, and as I make these comments, I think it's important for people to know I'm identified by my rank, but I'm here as a private citizen. The Air Force and the Department of Defense is not telling me what I can and cannot say.
Col. KLEINMAN: It's sort of like, you know, the story of Billy Mitchell, writ very, very small. I just believe so strong - my father was a, for a short time, a POW in World War II. He was shot down out of a B-17. And, you know, he was treated in a fashion that we found reprehensible. And if he were here with me today - you know, he passed away just after I got back from Desert Storm - I'm quite certain he would tell me what his generation would do in terms of their value set and the characters - in fact, the value set that they were willing to give up their lives to defend.
SIEGEL: Well, Colonel Kleinman, thank you very much for talking with us today.
Col. KLEINMAN: It's been an honor to be with you. Thank you very much.
SIEGEL: Steven Kleinman, a colonel in the Air Force Reserve, a professional intelligence officer and a man who has testified about interrogations in Iraq.