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."
The Senate report cites memos that confirmed your accounts of what happened, but the same memos say that you did not take your story further up the chain of command. Why not?
I came across that, and I was stunned ... I was directed to write a report ... and I described in great detail what happened and why those were violations of the Geneva Convention. But I was directed to send my report up my chain of command ... and I was ordered to keep it within those channels — for classification, for security purposes ... So I did everything, even beyond what was reasonable. I did make my chain of command very clear. I did make the Department of Defense inspector general's office aware. It was classified. Had I spoken out at that time ... I could have been charged with divulging classified information.