By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 26, 2008
The techniques themselves -- forced nudity, sleep deprivation, painful shackling -- had been used for years to prepare U.S. fighter pilots for possible capture by an enemy. But Col. Steven Kleinman, an Air Force instructor, said he was shocked in 2003 to see the same harsh methods used haphazardly on Iraqis in a U.S. prison camp.
"It had morphed into a form of punishment for those who wouldn't cooperate," said Kleinman, a career intelligence officer and survival-school instructor.
In dramatic testimony before a Senate panel yesterday, he gave a rare account of how the Pentagon adapted an Air Force training program to squeeze information from captured Iraqis.
What Kleinman witnessed in Baghdad in September 2003 prompted him to order a stop to three interrogations, and to warn his superiors that the military's interrogation practices were abusive and, in his opinion, illegal.
"I told the task force commander that the methods were unlawful and were in violation of the Geneva Conventions," he told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Kleinman was one of two witnesses at a hearing that probed the Pentagon's use of specific interrogation tactics in Iraq, Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Defense officials previously have acknowledged a decision in 2003 by then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to authorize techniques adapted from a training program known as Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape, or SERE.
That program subjects pilot trainees to physical and psychological abuse they may face if captured by an enemy that does not honor the Geneva Conventions' guidelines for treatment of prisoners of war.
Also yesterday, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 10 to 9, along party lines, to subpoena memos and other materials related to harsh interrogation techniques from the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel. Senate and House Democrats have long sought the documents, which offered legal authority for some of the Bush administration's most controversial detainee treatment policies.
Kleinman, a senior officer at the Air Force Academy where SERE training was conducted, was part of a team invited to Iraq in 2003 to observe interrogations and offer advice. He said he witnessed several episodes in which young troops sought to overcome a lack of training in interrogations by blindly using harsh SERE tactics on Iraqi detainees. Many of the interrogations took place in a former ammunition bunker, which he described as "underground, cold and dark."
In one instance, he said, a detainee was forced to kneel under a spotlight, flanked by guards toting iron bars, while interrogators shouted questions at him. Each answer automatically elicited a hard slap across the face -- a pattern that was repeated without pause for 30 minutes. When Kleinman intervened to stop the questioning, the interrogators appeared baffled. "They didn't seem to think it was a problem," he said.
A second detainee interrogated in Kleinman's presence was subjected to sleep deprivation and painful stress positions. A third had all his clothes physically torn from his body and was ordered to stand continuously for 12 hours, "or until he passed out," Kleinman said.
When Kleinman complained about the practices, various Defense Department officials agreed that the techniques probably violated Geneva Conventions standards but the interrogations continued unabated, he said. By then, six months into the Iraq war, White House and Defense Department lawyers had issued legal opinions that declared the Iraqi detainees to be "unlawful enemy combatants" not covered by Geneva Conventions protections for prisoners of war.
Kleinman said the Air Force's training program was distorted into an offensive program. He noted that the harsh techniques were adapted from torture methods used by Chinese communists, and were never regarded as useful in eliciting intelligence. Instead, they break a prisoner psychologically and make him eager to say anything to stop the pain.
"That model's primary objective was to compel a prisoner to generate propaganda, not intelligence," he said.
Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), the committee chairman and the only senator to attend the hearing, sought to draw a link between the alleged abuse Kleinman described and the actions of Bush administration officials who made the initial decisions to allow "enhanced interrogation" of detainees. Pentagon decisions approving harsh measures "conveyed the message that senior officials felt that physical pressures and degrading tactics were appropriate," he said.
Levin noted that many of the aggressive techniques approved by Pentagon officials -- and witnessed by Kleinman and others -- were later used against detainees at Iraq's infamous Abu Ghraib prison.
"The clear message to our troops was that the abuse of detainees was permissible activity," Levin said.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.