WASHINGTON The Iraqi prisoner had valuable intelligence, U.S. special forces believed, and they desperately wanted it. They demanded that expert American military trainers teach them the same types of abusive interrogation techniques that North Korea and Vietnamese forces once used against U.S. prisoners of war.
The trainers resisted, according to testimony prepared for a Senate hearing today; the methods were intended to elicit confessions for propaganda use, rather than gather intelligence. They were overruled and ordered to demonstrate on the prisoner in September 2003, early in the war.
The interrogation went ahead before a lead trainer stepped in and stopped it. He and his team were sent home shortly thereafter.
The written testimony of two military officers troubled by the use of unconventional interrogation techniques was obtained Wednesday by The Associated Press ahead of the Senate Armed Forces Committee hearing. According to the testimony, the military invaded Iraq and took control without expert interrogators or well-reasoned polices for dealing with prisoners, and was flailing for information however it could get it.
The hearing is the committee's second on the origins of the Pentagon's harsh interrogation program. The review fits into a broader picture of the government's handling of detainees, which includes FBI and CIA interrogations in secret prisons.
"In far too many cases, we simply erred in pressing interrogation and interrogators beyond the edge of the envelope; as a result, interrogation was no longer an intelligence collection method; rather, it had morphed into a form of punishment for those who wouldn't cooperate," Col. Steven Kleinman said in his prepared testimony.
He headed the small team of military trainers from the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency sent to Iraq in September 2003 to help special forces get more information from stubborn and resistant detainees.
"When presented with the choice of getting smarter or getting tougher, we chose the latter," Kleinman stated.
The agency runs the Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape training program, which includes stressful mock interrogations intended to prepare soldiers to withstand and resist abusive interrogations in the event they are ever taken prisoner. The program uses methods derived from real-life experiences of American prisoners of war. The techniques include forced nudity, stress positions, exposure to extremes in weather and waterboarding, a form of simulated drowning.
The program was once known as the Communist Interrogation Model. It was designed to "physically and psychologically debilitate an individual's ability to resist, with the primary objective of forcing compliance," according to Kleinman's testimony.
The special forces task force asked Kleinman's team to teach them the interrogation methods used in the SERE course. Kleinman refused. He was overruled by the task force's lawyers.
They then demanded that Kleinman's team demonstrate the techniques on an Iraqi prisoner. Kleinman again refused and again was overruled, according to testimony from retired Air Force Col. John Moulton II, Kleinman's commander at the time as the head of the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency.
The interrogation went forward. Kleinman stopped it. He and his team subsequently were sent home by the task force, according to Moulton.
Kleinman said the special forces team was ill-served by the military's failure to train and prepare for interrogation operations.
"Pressed to find a solution to a critical intelligence shortfall, special operators followed their professional instincts. They could not wait for the intelligence community to respond," he stated.
The special forces team was not the first to seek SERE techniques for use in interrogations. In June, the Senate committee released a trail of documents that showed the Pentagon in June 2002 was collecting information about SERE interrogation techniques for use against detainees. The U.S. invaded Iraq in March 2003.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld approved several of those techniques, including stress positions, sensory deprivation, and sleep disruption, for use at Guantanamo Bay in December 2002, despite the objections of military lawyers who warned they might be illegal.
The military in 2006 rewrote the rules on interrogations, specifically prohibiting many of the harsh techniques approved by Rumsfeld.
The committee on Wednesday also released documents showing then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and her top lawyer John Bellinger were briefed on SERE interrogation methods at the White House in 2002 or 2003.
"I recall being told...that these techniques had been deemed not to cause significant physical or psychological harm," Rice wrote.
Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, said in an interview Wednesday that Rice and Bellinger's statements show the White House was aware that the harsh techniques under consideration for use by American interrogators were were adapted from those used by former enemies who regularly violated the Geneva Conventions.
"These discussion about the use of these tactics took place at the highest level of our government, at the White House," Levin said.
Levin contends that the high-level endorsement paved the way for the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison and elswhere in Iraq and Afghanistan.