Skip to comments.Effective interrogation without torture 101 from retired Army Colonel Stuart Herrington
Posted on 02/13/2007 7:18:08 AM PST by Valin
HH: This hour, dont go anywhere. Im joined by Colonel Stuart Herrington, retired from the United States Army. Hes a native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I dont know who taught him how to read. They had to send out of state for that, then. Hes a graduate of Duquesne University, University of Florida. He has had a career in human and counterintelligence that few can rival in the United States. Most recently, July of 2006, he was asked by the U.S. Army to train a new organization of Army interrogators, which was being prepared for deployment to Iraq. He has been called back to the service of the flag a couple of times to help with various interrogation related matters. I believe hes also a consultant to 24. Col. Herrington, welcome to the program.
SH: Thank you very much, Hugh. Its good to be here.
HH: Youre not a Steelers fan, are you, Colonel?
SH: Oh, I have to say I am.
HH: You know, thats its a very sad thing when I find otherwise upright Americans who lack football sense.
SH: But my credibility would be zero if I said no.
HH: No, thats true, but its sort of like an accident of birth.
HH: Yeah, Im from Cleveland, by the way. I still maintain my Browns season tickets, and its just, I very rarely meet literate Pittsburghians, so Im glad to have you here. Colonel, help me out first on the 24 thing. Are you a consultant to the series, or you just talk to them occasionally?
SH: Im not a consultant. I went up there voluntarily at the behest of an organization called Human Rights First to network with them, and to speak with them a little bit about the interrogation discipline that I grew up in, in the United States Army, and knowing that their show centerpieces interrogation, or what some people would call interrogation, and the fact that they maybe had never met a real interrogator. So Ive been up there and spoken with the producer and the writers, but I am not retained by them.
HH: Now you know, I think it must be very frustrating for you, given how often interrogation is discussed by people who dont know what theyre talking about. For example, last week we spoke with the president of the Society For Ethnomusicologists who were upset with the use of music in interrogation. Is does anyone ever get it right, Colonel?
SH: Regrettably, its one of those disciplines that everyone seems to think they know a lot about it, but very few people do, and even fewer have ever really done it.
HH: I know I absolutely know nothing about it, which is why I have never commented on other than asking other people questions. So Id like to know, how do you think we ought to educate our audience about this, Colonel? What do they need to know first about interrogation when its being done by either the American military or American intelligence agencies?
SH: I think the first piece of advice for anyone who really wants to understand interrogation is to zero out and ignore virtually everything that theyve ever seen on either television or in Hollywood movies, because thats not interrogation as we know it, as professional interrogators, at all.
HH: And Colonel, how many interrogations have you conducted?
SH: I couldnt begin to count, but between my service in Vietnam, my interrogation centers that I ran in Panama, another one in Desert Storm, and my current job where I do a lot of interrogation and debriefing, its in the thousands.
HH: All right. And youve trained a lot of the current American military interrogators who are deployed around the world as well. From the time you began in this human and counterintelligence business to today, how much of the techniques changed as to effective interrogation?
SH: Well, we thought we had it pretty well on track, and that there was a consensus in the discipline that interrogation is a very professionally demanding discipline that requires an understanding of human nature, and essentially how to outsmart and outfox a source who has information that he really doesnt want to tell you, but its your job to get it. And Id thought for some time that we had a good consensus on that until the Iraq thing came along, and something happened, and people took a wrong turn at the intersection, if you will.
HH: And how did they do that?
SH: Well, there became a notion of what, and I think part of it was because of official policy emanating from the Department of Defense, and then part of it was just that plus osmosis plus the influence of television and the overall pop culture, that interrogators are inquisitors, and that the best way to get information out of people is to take off the gloves. And thats the wrong turn that we took, and its a very serious wrong turn, because for a whole variety of reasons, torture and brutality in interrogations is counterproductive.
HH: Does the United States military torture people?
SH: Well, I think if you ask the question has it happened, or have things taken place that are wrong, and that went well over the line, I think the answer is yes, regrettably. Was it a controlled policy, i.e. that what they were doing was something that was sanctioned from on high, my own personal opinion is that some of it was, especially the things that the task force was doing in Iraq with respect to the top fifty of Saddams henchmen that they caught, and al Qaeda types. And in some cases, it was just stupid young people with bad leadership and bad skills essentially behaving in an extremely counterproductive and undisciplined fashion, and thats more what applies to Abu Ghraib.
HH: And has order been restored, in your opinion, to the interrogation techniques of the United States military?
SH: Well, I certainly hope so. I can tell you, Hugh, that I was asked to go to Fort Hood this past summer and spend three straight days, 24 hours on the platform, teaching an entire new generation of young Army interrogators. And the thrust of the invitation was that we needed to get it back on track. I thought after I visited Iraq in December, 03, and saw some things going on that werent right and reported them that theyd fix it right away, and I was disappointed in that they took some measures, but there were still a lot of pretty counterproductive and stupid conduct that took place even after I had reported on it and had come back to the States. But I think by now even the dullest and the thickest of skulls has gotten the message that thats just not the way to do it.
HH: Now specificity matters a lot when were talking about terms like this, so Id like to run down some of the interrogation techniques that people have debated, people who dont know what theyre talking about, and get your opinions on them.
HH: Prolonged periods of standing.
SH: Generally speaking, stupid, as are virtually all techniques that involve making a person, you know, trying to get information from a person by making the person physically in a hurt.
HH: Do you consider that, as a professional, torture?
SH: No, I dont think thats torture. I dont think thats torture, but I think its stupid.
HH: How about sleep deprivation?
SH: I never did it, never had to do it. I realize that its in the repertoire of a lot of people who fancy themselves interrogators in that it breaks down the defenses, the physical and they hope the psychological defenses of a subject. But again, I never had to resort to that stuff in Vietnam, Panama or the Desert.
HH: Is it torture?
SH: I dont think its torture, not in the sense of torture as commonly understood, i.e. water boarding, pulling out fingernails, electric shock, and stuff like that. I just think its counterproductive and stupid.
HH: How about the playing of music, either loudly or repeatedly?
SH: I think thats stupid as well.
SH: Depends on how loud, I guess. I mean, I could conceive of a level of decibels in a speaker right next to someones ear which is causing
HH: Physical pain, yeah.
SH: physical pain, and possibly irreversible damage, and I certainly wouldnt go there. A lot of these techniques that are on various lists, some of which, you know, have to be approved at a certain level in order to be carried out, I dont sign up to, even if someone else has.
HH: What about temperature deprivation, you know, extremes of hot and cold, though not of course the sort of extremes that kill people?
SH: Cruel and stupid.
SH: Could be, depending on how cold, depending on how hot.
HH: So how do you define torture, Colonel?
SH: Well, everybodys got their own definition, I guess, but to me, torture is brutal, possibly physically and or psychologically extremely damaging treatment, demeaning, but demeaning to the extreme. And its one of those things that as the pundit once said, for me, anyway, I know it when I see it.
HH: Yeah, Justice Stewart in being asked to define pornography said that, I know it when I see it.
SH: Exactly. Thats the famous quote.
HH: Now given all that, do you believe that the military is consistently applying what you believe to be good judgment now in its interrogations at Guantanamo and in Iraq?
SH: You know, I really cant speak from firsthand experience in Guantanamo or Iraq right now, because my Guantanamo visit was within three months after they started it in 02. My Iraq trip was in December, 03. That said, there have been so many visitors, including a lot with a lot of credibility, to Guantanamo, who have pronounced that its the most human, cleanest, high tech, safest incarceration facility that in some cases, the inspectors have ever seen, that I would tend to believe that in the wake of everything thats happened, and in the wake of huge investment in Guantanamo, that the American people dont have to worry about how people are being treated there.
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HH: A little bit more background on Col. Herrington. His military awards include the Distinguished Service Medal, five awards of the Legion of Merit, two Bronze Stars, the Air Medal, Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with two Bronze Stars. He was also twice awarded the CIAs Agency Seal Medallion in connection with key national counterespionage cases in his actions during Operation Desert Storm. Hes the author of several books, including Stalking the Vietcong: Inside Operation Phoenix, and Traitors Among Us: Inside the Spy Catchers World. Colonel, is it true you were on the Embassy roof in 1975 in Vietnam?
SH: Thats very true, and very sad, yes.
HH: What were you doing there?
SH: I was assigned to Saigon at the time during the ceasefire as an intelligence officer in the missing in action negotiation team that was formed as a result of the Paris Accords of January, 73, and that put me in Saigon. And so when the situation began to deteriorate, why I, and a very small handful of other American military, were still in country under the terms of the treaty, so that put us in a position of being the executors of the evacuation.
HH: So youve I want to get back to interrogation, but youve seen America lose wars before, and the aftermath.
HH: With that experience, what do you think about the situation in Iraq today?
SH: Well, its somewhat distressing, because you know, during my four years in Vietnam, the last two being during the time when we were defeating that insurgency, and finally broken the code on how to do it, and it was obvious that insurgencies could be defeated, there was a huge body of knowledge of insurgencies imparted to a lot of people like myself. Weve gone down the road in Iraq as if all that experience didnt exist. And now, they find themselves up against the wall, facing the possibility, if they dont get their act together, that some poor American captain, just like I was back then, is going to have to leave the roof of the Embassy in the Green Zone, and say to the Iraqis who trusted us, sorry about that. We changed our mind. That is a very depressing thought to me.
HH: John Burns, the New York Times reporter who Ill be interviewing next hour, its a replay of Fridays interview, suggested that the casualties in Iraq in November, December, were 3,700, but that the night we leave, itll be 3,700 in one night, that the bloodbath will be extraordinary, and that we just have to look that squarely in the eyes. Do you agree with that assessment?
SH: I think its probably even worse than that, but I agree with him that the consequences of our country vacillating in its commitments, and promising people were with you all the way, just stand up and vote for democracy, and then turning around after a few years, and saying gee, sorry about that, thats a pretty bleak prospect, and it says not much good about our country.
HH: What do you think about General David Petraeus?
SH: I think hes a really enlightened, bright guy who embodies a lot of the institutional knowledge that was so often forgotten in the Army. I think he proved it when he commanded the 101st in the northern part of Iraq at the beginning by the way, his troops comported themselves. I think hes the right man for the right job. I desperately, desperately hope and pray that he can pull it off.
HH: Have you read the new counterinsurgency manual he superintended when at Leavenworth?
SH: I have not seen the new counterinsurgency manual, but because I participate actively in the counterinsurgency inner circle of people out there who do know about it, and a lot of them worked with it, I know that its a pretty good manual.
HH: How important is intelligence to counterinsurgency success?
SH: Its critical.
HH: And how do you get it?
SH: You get it from people, and ideally, the best sources of information are people, prisoners and detainees exploited humanely in conjunction with documents, and that was the lesson learned of the Vietnam War, that the very best source of intelligence was from defectors and prisoners who were exploited very carefully in conjunction with documents.
HH: Can we talk a bit about humane exploitation, Col. Herrington?
HH: Whats it look like?
SH: Well, you know, it doesnt look like Abu Ghraib, I can tell you that.
HH: Well, sure, but I think we agree with that. I mean, I dont think I know of anyone who has endorsed that, and its
SH: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Basically, when a guy is captured, hes stressed, he is frightened, and hes probably expecting to be mistreated, because in most societies in the world, thats the way it works. Disarming him psychologically, by treating him in a manner the opposite of what he expects, extending decent, humane treatment to him, showing concern for himself, his needs, being nimble in assessing and evaluating the person, and recognizing that getting information from someone is developmental, i.e. you wont get information from someone, generally speaking, just by saying okay, Im the captor, youre the prisoner, tell me what you know. You earn it. I like to say that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed probably didnt give up a lot of the information that he gave up because somebody started water boarding him and beating him up. Instead, they used a very clever approach, and played to his ego and his psychological need to be recognized as the architect of 9/11, and the guy talked. In all of the successful interrogation projects that Ive ever had anything to do with, extending fundamentally decent treatment to the detainees, we even used to call them guests. And you know, the guards would salute a prisoner if he was an officer, and we give them good food, and we would tell them it was unconditional, regardless of whether they chose to talk with us or not. And that type of an approach has a very high batting average.
HH: Now at Guantanamo Bay, there are some pretty hard cases, people who have been trained, obviously, who are motivated not by ideology but by religious fanaticism, and I distinguish between secular are religious
HH: And theyre not talking, are they, Colonel?
SH: Theres a lot of talking going on at Guantanamo. I cant give you firsthand, you know, a matrix of successes and how many sources, but theres a lot of talking going on down there. And my own take on it is that in talking with sources, youve got to be developmental, and youve got to understand that when theyre religiously motivated and fanatical, as a lot of the Islamists are, your batting average might not be what our batting average was in Vietnam, Panama, or Desert Storm. And by the way, our batting average was always 80-90% talked.
HH: And that means credible, reliable information that proved accurate?
SH: Credible thats right. Instead of spitting in your eye and saying you know, Im a general officer in the army of Iraq, and I dont talk to my captors, Ill give you my name and my service number, as opposed to that approach, the person agrees to talk, engage in a dialogue, talks day after day after day, never sure what you dont know and what you do know, and in doing that, he makes your day, because basically, youre gathering excellent assessment data about him as a person, youre being able to evaluate what a good approach might be to get further, and you get information. When youre dealing with religious fanatics, lets just say the batting average goes down to say four out of ten, instead of eight or nine out of ten that we traditionally got, the reason being the fanaticism and the religious motivation. You know what? Four out of ten, you know, when Ted Williams hit four out of ten, he was a hero. Four out of ten for an interrogator is a very good batting average. Hes getting good information.
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HH: Col., Im getting a couple of standard questions. Number one, from pilots who have gone through water boarding training in their survival courses, why do you consider it torture?
SH: Well, water boarding is very much like another technique that was used during the Vietnam War by the Vietnamese, where they put a poncho over the head of the person, and then poured water through the poncho into the mouth, simulating drowning. Its an inhumane its inhumane treatment, its the kind of treatment that is essentially trying to extract information from someone by creating a fear of imminent death, not unlike and analogous to mock executions. We will have made progress in this arena when people realize that the way you get information from someone is to outsmart them, and use guile and stealth and chicanery to trick them into information, or secondarily, and the best way, is to persuade the person that its the right thing to do to talk.
HH: Is it effective? Is water boarding effective?
SH: Boy, you know what? I cant tell you that. Ive never practiced it. I consider it to be abhorrent, a practice that shouldnt be practiced by any professional interrogator, and youre going to have to ask someone other than me. But I, generally speaking, know from experience that when you levy brutality against a person in order to get that person to talk, even if the person hasnt got anything to say, or doesnt know what it is that you want, theyll come up with something to say just to get you to quit doing it.
HH: Do you play on fears of family and their safety, not reprisal, but you know, going back to be with them? Is that effective?
SH: You know, the developmental approach involves engaging someone in conversation and evaluating them. And certainly, Ive had cases where family played a big part. I once had a prisoner in Panama, for example, who was on his second day of captivity, was in tears, and was depressed, and the guards told me they were worried about him. When I went to see him, it turned out that you know, hed been captured for three days, his wife didnt know if he was dead or alive. He had an 18 month old child at home, and he was just totally depressed and in a deep funk over it. I got a cell phone, and we called his wife. I was his friend for life after that.
HH: Now an e-mail. Mr. Hewitt, can you ask the Colonel if we would authorize torture regarding someone who knows of a nuke about to go off in minutes or hours.
SH: Yeah, thats the so-called ticking time bomb scenario. The difficulty with that is that that question poses a hypothetical which in my experience, I never ran into a hypothetical like that. If you pose the rectitude, or lack thereof, of torture based upon that hypothetical, youre not really dealing in the real world. Thats my answer to that.
HH: In an era when weve had attempted dirty bomb importation into the United States, and weve had WMD used here, in anthrax, at least, are there some circumstances where at least at a classified lever, people ought to walk through those scenarios, to have the rules laid down in stone, Colonel?
SH: Im sorry, but I didnt get the thrust of that.
HH: The thrust is, should I dont know whether you want to do it publicly, but shouldnt the military be walking through those scenarios, and establishing the guidelines right now, so that theyre not improvised when and if such hypotheticals occur?
SH: You mean the interrogation guidelines?
SH: Yeah, well I think the answer to that is that you know, the type of information youre trying to get is obviously situation dependent, and sometimes the situation is more critical than others, but theres got to be, and thats whats going on now, a healthy deliberation, and a laying down of here are the procedures and this has been done already, here are the procedures that are authorized, here are some more aggressive procedures that are not authorized without the approval of so and so, and here are procedures that you will never do, and so that everyone knows basically what the ground rules are, so theres no room for hot doggery, you know?
HH: Ill take calls after the break. Im going to give you the e-mail before we go to break. Mr. Hewitt, just heard the Colonel mention the tactic of deep respect as a way of getting what one wants from prisoners. Can you ask him if he really believes this will work with our current enemy, who engage in torture as a daily occurrence, and sees anything less used on them as a sign of weakness. He appears to be an idealist living in another era when the convention of Geneva might have meant something to our enemy. Well, not really when you think of the North Koreans, Japs, Germans, Viet Cong or other enemies for that matter. We go to break in 30 seconds, Colonel. You want to start?
SH: I basically understand why your viewer, or listener would say that, but my sense of it is that theres quite a lot of successes that hes never heard of, of people talking, and people whom you would never think would talk because they are fanatical Islamists or what have you, and that just never makes the headlines.
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HH: Col., one more e-mail, and then to the phones, Col. Hugh, please ask the Colonel is sodium pentothal or other sedative anesthetics are okay? Thats from a doctor. What do you think, Colonel?
SH: Again, foreign to my experience. Theyve been toyed with, tampered with and played with by intelligence agencies around the world. Generally speaking, though, not a reliable way to get good information. They tend to relax the persons stresses and senses, and put them in a little bit of a less inhibited mode, but theyre not a substitute for professional exploitation. Hugh, Id like to add something here
HH: Go ahead.
SH: to your e-mailer who talked about the seeming idealism of what Ive said.
SH: Listeners shouldnt get the impression that this is one giant love fest, and that you set up this resort facility and bring these people in, and you know, treat them unconditionally well for nothing. Its a very cleverly constructed approach to essentially deal with people in a fashion that enables you to evaluate and assess them, and then go for the weak points. It could be, for example, an Iraqi general whos captured, and hes humiliated, and hes a very hard core Saddamist, and you might just spend some time showing him photographs of the scope of the catastrophe that Saddams 42 divisions just met, and direct his anger not at the United States or the coalition, but at Saddam
SH: at which point in time he starts to talk. So theres a lot of very, very specialized effort to turn a person by showing the person information that causes the persons frustrations and anxieties and anger to be directed against his leader, his country, instead of against the interrogator or the capturing powers.
HH: How long does it take to train an interrogator, Colonel?
SH: They train them in Arizona, and its a pretty long course, months and months in length with a lot of practices on approaches. And probably not as much about human nature and psychology as I think they ought to include, but its a pretty thorough, and its a pretty rigorous course, and of course, one of the things that theyre really emphasizing now is, even though it feels good to say lets take the gloves off, and some of your listeners have alluded to that
HH: Oh, Im getting lots of that, yup.
SH: Yeah, you get a lot of that. The reality is that number one, we condemn everyone else when they do that, and why should we do it and lower ourselves to that level. And number two, apart from the fact that its illegal and immoral, its a lousy way to get good information.
HH: How effective are the jihadists anti-interrogation trainings turning out to be?
SH: Ive read the manual, you know, the so-called Manchester document that was seized several years back. Its very evident to me that that manual was produced with the assistance of a professional intelligence service, probably the Pakistani, in my opinion, you know, feigning knowledge, lack of knowledgeability, feigning illness, claiming that they dont know anything, and a lot of the other techniques that they use are theyre common, theyre common, but again, a good interrogator smells that and has to get around it. And there are ways to do it.
HH: Dear Hugh, please, please ask your guest what he would say to the Congress regarding the meaningless resolutions that are currently be debated in relation to additional troops being sent to Iraq.
SH: Its déjà vu all over again, 1974, 1975 in Vietnam. And if thats what they want, thats what theyll get.
HH: Jim in Atlanta, youre on with Col. Herrington. Go ahead, Jim.
Jim: Thank you. Colonel Herrington, Im largely persuaded by what you said. I still need a little more persuading in one little area. Lets say you have somebody like Osama or al-Zawahiri, and you knew he knew where some really big terrorist hits were going to be. Would you then plus, theyre fanatics, and theyre much less likely to talk. Would you then use some coercion, or even a lot? Or could you?
SH: Like you, Jim, Im no fan of Ayman al-Zawahiris. But when you get a guy whos at fanatical as he is, and lets suppose that he, lets grant the hypothetical that he has this information between his ears. Rather than try and brutalize it out of him, Id try every other approach that I could think of, including in his case, ego. That said, no I wouldnt brutalize him. And my sense of it is that in most cases like that, people who are fanatical jihadists, if you start to really, really apply torture and that sort of stuff to them, if its a ticking time bomb scenario, theyre just going to give you false information, send you down a wild goose chase to use up the time that you might have to get where you want to go. So no, Im not, I wont cave on that, even though I share your sentiments about this guy.
HH: Thank you much, Jim. Lets go to Allen in Sherman Oaks. Hi, Allen, youre on the Hugh Hewitt Show with Col. Herrington.
Allen: Hi. Say, when I relate this story to some friends of mine, they tell me that Im an idiot. It had to do with a book that I read a while back on the Russian interrogation techniques during the 1934-35 show trial period
Allen: And the story was there was a defector to moved to Canada and then the United States, and the story was that they were prohibited, or that the rules were you never laid a hand on a prisoner, you never exerted any physical pressure on him, and that in fact, that there was a system of interrogators, some of them were stars, and some of them were dunces.
HH: All right. Lets find out. Thank you, Allen. What do you think, Colonel? Is that how the Russians did it?
SH: You know, Ive also heard about that book, and Ive heard that the techniques of the then-MGB were surprisingly psychological versus brutal. It doesnt surprise me, though. All professional interrogation organizations have somebody who sees the best way to do it. The Germans who interrogated our pilots at Oberursel, Germany, during World War II, had an interrogator named Hans Scharf who treated them so well that even though they all spilled their guts, he was a member of their club after World War II, came to the States, became a citizen, and a beloved member of their veterans association.
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HH: Before I get a couple more calls in, Colonel, anything that youve wanted to say that we just didnt find the opportunity to say, or you want to say a second time?
SH: Oh, I think you posed a tantalizing question about Jack Bauer, and my sense of this one is that the readers should stay tuned, because I have a feeling hes going to get it right, eventually.
HH: Oh, how interesting. Now by the way, how am I doing as an interrogator?
SH: I think youre doing real well. Youre eliciting in a cheerful, good-natured fashion, disarming my natural defenses so that I feel compelled to say whatever it is you wish.
HH: You know, it just didnt work with Andrew Sullivan. Thats the do you read his stuff, by the way, Colonel?
HH: Okay, just checking San Diego, Frank. Youre on with Colonel Herrington.
Frank: Yes, hello, Hugh, This is Miramar Frank. We havent talked in a while.
HH: Good to talk with you, Frank. Good to have you.
Frank: Yeah, good to talk with you. Listen, a couple of things. One, I wanted to touch on what Colonel Herrington was saying. I spent three years as a training officer at the Navy Survival Evasion Resistance Escape School. I did not conduct operational interrogations while I was there, but the Colonel will understand that I certainly had a great opportunity to conduct many simulated issues where we raised the bar for the young pilots and high risk personnel that go through there on interrogation techniques, and hes absolutely right. Theres no doubt about it that the soft approach, though we dont have as much time, months and months and months, but the soft approach often is much more effective, and I have water boarded, personally, several hundred people, and I can tell you over time, it is the ability to its why its called intelligence. We need to take an intelligent approach to taking this interrogation, especially with the bad guys.
HH: Frank, thanks for your service. Ill give the last minute to the Colonel to respond to that.
SH: Well, Franks my kind of guy. Hes from San Diego here. Its always good to get a vote of yeah verily on something like this. I would only say to all of your listeners that there is a very, very sophisticated way of exploiting human sources thats time tested as being the most effective, and it is not brutalizing people. And when we go the wrong road and we brutalize people, we take an episode, or a series of episodes at a very low level like that stupid Abu Ghraib prison, and we escalate the impact of that conduct to the detriment of our country. And look what has happened to our country and to the support for the war effort simply because of the stupidity of Abu Ghraib. So its right to do it the way Ive proposed, its worked, its time tested. Almost all professional interrogators know that. And we should go that way.
HH: Colonel Herrington, thank you. Next time around, well work on your Steelers problem. I appreciate your service, Colonel.
End of interview.
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