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Morgenson Sheds Light on Subprime Mortgage Crisis

Pulitzer Prize-winning business columnist Gretchen Morgenson talks about the subprime mortgage crisis and its effects on the markets and on the economy. Morgenson, an assistant business and financial editor for The New York Times, has covered the financial markets for The Times since 1998.


Other segments from the episode on October 10, 2007

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 10, 2007: Interview with Gretchen Morgenson; Interview with Adam Fierro, Stuart Herrington, and David Danzig.


DATE October 10, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Financial reporter Gretchen Morgenson on the subprime
mortgage meltdown, hedge funds, and the economic condition of the

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

I don't know about you, but I'm still a little confused about what caused the
subprime mortgage meltdown, where hedge funds fit in, and what hedge funds
are, and whether this mess is over or not. So we invited Pulitzer
Prize-winning journalist Gretchen Morgenson to help us out. She's a financial
reporter and columnist for The New York Times. Back in the early '80s, she
worked for a major stock brokerage.

Gretchen Morgenson, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let me start with a question that
you can't answer.

Ms. GRETCHEN MORGENSON: Ah! I love those.

GROSS: Are we done yet? Is the bubble burst? Is the volatility over? I
mean, are you looking for more places were problems are going to show up?

Ms. MORGENSON: Terry, I think we are now sort of in the eye of the storm,
and let me explain what I mean by that. Some of the worst mortgage
practice--i.e., mortgages given to people who did not, you know, have a job or
could not document their income, or perhaps were fraudulently applying for a
mortgage, some of those worst practices took place in 2006 and even in the
beginning of 2007, and so many of those mortgages had an initial period of a
low interest rate and then would reset after two years, and so we have not
even begun to see the problems emerging from those practices of 2006, which
will start to come to the fore in 2008. So it's going to be kind of a
slow-motion train wreck unfortunately.

GROSS: Now, you've written a lot about Countrywide, one of the nation's
largest mortgage companies, and you describe them as among the most aggressive
lenders in the nation. Let's talk a little bit about some of their riskier
products and the impact that that had. What were some of the risky mortgages
that they sold?

Ms. MORGENSON: Countrywide was right in the middle of the mortgage
boom--i.e., the development of new products, the aggressive pushing or
promoting of what were called "affordability" mortgages, and this whole
practice really extended across the industry. It was not just Countrywide.
Countrywide gets, I guess, some attention because of its size. Some of the
mortgages that were the most aggressive were what are known as option ARMs, or
adjustable-rate mortgages. And what that meant was that you had an option, or
you had a choice, of whether or not you wanted to pay the interest and the
principal down or just pay a very, very modest amount of interest. And what
that ended up doing was creating a loan that you're really not paying off, and
it would then add to the back of the loan the amount that you were not paying
in principal.

GROSS: There's recently been a record number of foreclosures. Let me quote a
statistic that you've quoted. In August of this year, almost 244,000
foreclosures. That's up 36 percent from the previous month and more than
double the number in August of 2006. So here's what I still don't understand.
If you're like a mortgage company and you're giving mortgages to people who
you suspect are going to default, where's the profit? Like, why would you do
that? If they're going to default on you, why give them the loan?

Ms. MORGENSON: Terry, that's an excellent question, and what it reflects is
an understanding of the way that the home mortgage market used to work, before
the onset what we call securitization. Wall Street wanted to get involved in
home mortgages because they're very lucrative and because of this whole idea
of affordability and getting more and more people into homes, and so what Wall
Street did was develop a way to package home mortgage loans, thousands of
them, into securities that were then sold to investors. Now, you remember in
the old days when you borrowed to buy a home, you did it with your local
banker. The banker knew you, the banker knew the property, the banker knew
whether you were going to be able to repay the loan and what the value of the
property was worth. And he or she had a vested interest in making sure that
the loan was paid off, because he or she kept it on the bank's books.

No longer. Now we have these securities that are constructed by Wall Street,
put together at first by firms like Countrywide, who are mortgage lenders.
They put them all together, thousands of mortgages, into a security, then
they're sold to investors. Countrywide is not necessarily on the hook if the
loan goes bad. The investor who bought the securitization trust that contains
the mortgage is on the hook if the loan goes bad. So, you see, you've
separated out the person who is making the loan, who is analyzing the ability
of the borrower to repay, separating that entity from the ultimate owner of
the loan, and so some of the natural, you know, responsibility or care or
prudence that would be a part of that process if you're going to hold onto the
loan has disappeared.

GROSS: So if you're a riskier borrower, one of the ways that you're paying
more is a higher commission?

Ms. MORGENSON: That's correct. Another way that you're paying more is in a
higher interest rate. But, you see, many brokers were pushing these loans on
people because they stood to make more money making a subprime loan than they
did making a prime loan, and it was particularly egregious in cases where they
could have made an FHA loan, which is a loan that is insured by the government
and that was created for the very kind of first-time home buyer or lesser
credit borrower that the subprime market went after with a vengeance. So for
all of those brokers who should have been making FHA loans to subprime
borrowers, who instead made these, you know, these two-year teaser-rate loans
with the high reset rate, etc., all those brokers made so much more money
peddling subprime loans than they would have made on FHA loans, and that
really is one of the more egregious aspects of this mess.

GROSS: Here's another place where I'm completely confused. If people are
buying the mortgages from Countrywide because they're high-risk mortgages and
therefore they'll have more of a payoff for the people who are buying those
loans--you know, the investors who are buying those loans--how can that be if
the people are buying those mortgages in the first place because the interest
rates are so low? In other words, if the people buying the mortgages are
buying the mortgages because the interest rates are so low, how can the
investors get a higher yield out of it? I don't understand that.

Ms. MORGENSON: Here's why. Because you have a two-year initial low payment
period, and then after two years it resets or ratchets up to a massive
interest rate, OK? In some cases, 5 percentage points over the prevailing
market rate. All right? So you could have a situation--and I've talked to
many people who do--who have their rates go from 4 percent to 11 percent in
one year. I mean, when the reset period ends.

GROSS: Now, I know hedge funds were connected with the whole meltdown. I
don't really understand what hedge funds are or how they're connected to these
loans, so can you start by just explaining what a hedge fund is? And then
I'll ask you how they're connected to the meltdown.

Ms. MORGENSON: OK. Hedge funds are of great interest to many people today
because they have such enormous amounts of money, enormous pools of capital
that they can deploy into various investment arenas, and so hedge funds kind
of are the equivalent of the cowboy swaggering around, swaggering into the
saloon. I mean, they really can drive prices up in a market, if they are
buying. And they really can push prices down if they're selling. So the
reason everybody is so focused on hedge funds today is just because of the
sheer size of the money that they control. So that's one reason why people
care about hedge funds.

The other reason why is that they are not regulated. And this makes people
nervous. When you have the combination of enormous amounts of capital being
put to work in various securities markets, and when you add on top of that the
fact that they are not regulated, not closely scrutinized, people get nervous.
Because you wonder, OK, are they really doing what they should be doing? Is
there any concern here that they're maybe manipulating markets? It's really
hard to know because there really isn't a cop on the beat.

GROSS: So where do the hedge funds figure into the mortgage meltdown?

Ms. MORGENSON: Well, the hedge funds have been big buyers of the sort of
riskiest part of the mortgage market. They have been speculating in mortgages
and, unlike the pension funds and insurance companies who have been buying the
better quality mortgages, the hedge funds have been very, very aggressive and
very involved in betting on the subprime area. So that's why they're
connected to this mess.

But the other reason hedge funds have gotten to be kind of really front and
center is that in the securities market meltdown of August where we had this
extreme volatility in stocks and interest rates, the hedge funds really were
kind of the culprit behind that. It was basically that they were unwinding or
undoing some of the trades that they had on in very big size, and that was
what created the volatility in the markets that were so unsettling to so many
people in August.

GROSS: So you think it wasn't like little traders, it was like the hedge
funds selling things that affected the whole market?

Ms. MORGENSON: Absolutely.

GROSS: So, as a result of the mortgage meltdown and the impact it had on the
whole market and the whole economy, the Fed lowered interest rates. Why does
that make such a big difference?

Ms. MORGENSON: When the Fed lowers interest rates, it makes money more
available, cheaper, and more sort of readily accessible to banks, and that in
turn allows banks to be more free with the money that they're lending out.
What we were seeing this summer when it became clear that the home mortgage
mess was going to extend beyond the subprime market and really start to kind
of creep into other areas of the bond market, when that became apparent, it
started to freeze up. Markets are, of course, made of buyers and sellers, and
there has to be a confidence among buyers that they can get the price that
they want and that sellers can get the price that they want. And when buyers
and sellers aren't confident, they retreat, they stop trading. They just kind
of go to the corner and watch, and they say, `I'm going to wait this out. I
don't like what's happening.' And then you have a market that freezes or
seizes up as, you know, some of the Fed officials say, and that's a terrible
thing for the economy. That's a bad thing for business, and it's a bad thing
for, you know, everyday human beings.

Because you need money to make the world go round. You need money if you're a
home buyer. Let's say you get transferred by your company. You need to sell
your home and then you need to buy another one in your new town. You need it.
It's the grease that really spins the cogs, and so when that freezes up, one
of the things that the Federal Reserve can do is lower interest rates, make
the cost of capital for banks less expensive. And that's what they did.

GROSS: My guest is Gretchen Morgenson, financial reporter and columnist for
The New York Times. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Pulitzer Prize-winning financial journalist Gretchen
Morgenson. She's a reporter and columnist for The New York Times. We're
talking about the subprime mortgage meltdown and its consequences.

Alan Greenspan, the former, long-time head of the Fed, has a best-selling book
and he's been all over the media, including our show. How do you think
history is going to regard Alan Greenspan? Right now people are divided over
whether his lowering of interest rates and keeping them at very low rates for
a long time was behind the mortgage meltdown or whether he really helped the
economy a lot by doing it.

Ms. MORGENSON: Well, there's no doubt that he helped the economy by keeping
money what is called "easy" for all those years. But I do believe that he
will be viewed by history as a Federal Reserve chairman not of the highest
rank. And the reason for that is because he did throw money at every problem
that came along. It was almost as though he never met a bubble that he didn't
like. He embraced the technology stock market bubble of the late '90s, did
not seem to do anything about that as we saw the stock market racing to new
highs and Internet stocks that had zero revenue, zero earnings, you know,
trading at enormous prices. You know, it was ridiculous. People who had any
experience whatsoever in the market saw that as a problem, wondered why he
didn't raise the margin requirement to buy stocks, for instance. You know,
raise the amount that you as an investor would have to put down if you wanted
to borrow to buy stocks. So there was that bubble.

Then, of course, the low interest rates that he kept so low for so long did in
fact create the mortgage bubble. And he was even on record saying that he
thought adjustable-rate mortgages were a terrific thing for people. I
mean--so there's no doubt that he was very much a part of what we are now
seeing as, you know, a series of bad decisions that have created a mess for
people that's going to take an awful, awful long time to unwind.

GROSS: When Alan Greenspan was on our show, I asked him a question that
Robert Reich, the former secretary of labor, suggested that I ask, and the
question was, `Why didn't the Fed do more to try and regulate the mortgage
lenders after the Fed lowered interest rates so much?' And Greenspan basically
responded that that's really not the job of the Fed. He said that this is the
job of state attorney generals to worry about, you know, like fraud and
predatory lending. Is regulation not the job of the Fed?

Ms. MORGENSON: You know, first of all, I think that's just dead wrong. The
Fed has obviously enormous power and enormous moral power--right?--to stand up
and say, `Let's get this going. Let's regulate these mortgage brokers.' They
had no regulation whatsoever. If Alan Greenspan thinks that he can say that
that was not his job, then I would like to say, `Why didn't you get up and
say, "OK, maybe the Fed shouldn't oversee mortgage brokers, but someone
should. Let's make that happen"?' It doesn't necessarily have to be him doing
it or his entity doing it, but someone should be doing it. And that's the
kind of moral power that I think the Fed has in its arsenal and should use and
did not use. And so he really cannot escape liability here.

GROSS: Just for the record, I'm going to read precisely what he said. He
said, "There's no question in my mind that there's a good deal of predatory
lending going on. This type of action, which is essentially fraud, is a
criminal offense and something which the Federal Reserve regulators or
examiners are ill prepared to supervise. And indeed, we were good at looking
at balance sheets and judging concentration risks but extremely inept on all
criminal issues," and that that's a job for state attorney generals.

Ms. MORGENSON: Well, saying that it's a job for state attorney generals is
also annoying because Eliot Spitzer, when he was the state attorney general of
New York, was very aggressive about predatory lending and, in fact, struck a
deal with Countrywide that was very interesting and was kind of a model. But
the OCC, which is the Office of the Controller of the Currency, basically did
not want state attorneys general to muck around with banks and institutions
that it oversaw, and so there was a battle royale, and at the federal level it
was deemed that the states really ought not to get involved. So for Alan
Greenspan to say that the state attorneys general should have been in charge
here is, I think, disingenuous.

GROSS: A few months ago you were on Bill Moyer's public television show and
he asked you if you thought we were in a new gilded age, and you said, `The
new gilded age is about making money on money.' What do you mean by that?

Ms. MORGENSON: Well, it's funny, you know. When you think of the gilded age
of the late 1800s, the gilded age that produced the Vanderbilt fortune, the JP
Morgan fortune, the kind of robber barons they were called, these were men who
created corporations, companies, entities out of natural resources, out of
things. They built railroads. They did mining. They built ships. They
transported people. They transported goods. It was--they produced steel.
For instance, Carnegie.

Now the gilded age is people managing money. The people that you see who are
among the wealthiest and the fastest-growing wealth is in the management of
money: hedge fund managers who make hundreds of millions of dollars a year in
fees, private equity managers who oversee stables of companies that they
manage and then hope to sell back to the public market at a later date,
reaping enormous gains. These are the masters of the new gilded age, and it's
funny because you compare the two and you say wow, well, you know, Vanderbilt
and Phipps and Frick and Carnegie, they created things that were palpable,
tangible, that you could see. Things that--you know, railroads that are still
with us today. The new gilded age are people who are really, I think,
siphoning off money from people who are just trying to have a comfortable

GROSS: Gretchen Morgenson, thank you so much for talking with us.

Ms. MORGENSON: Any time, Terry.

GROSS: Gretchen Morgenson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and columnist
for The New York Times. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: David Danzig of Human Rights First's Prime Time Torture
Project; Adam Fierro, writer for "The Shield;" and retired Colonel
Stuart Harrington on the depiction of torture and interrogation
on television

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. If you based your opinion on TV shows,
you'd probably think that torture is very effective in getting people to talk.
That's what my guest David Danzig is worried about. He's with the group Human
Rights First, where he directs the Prime Time Torture Project. The group is
about to give an award to a TV show that depicts torture or interrogation in a
realistic fashion.

Also with us is Adam Fierro, who wrote an episode of "The Shield," which is
nominated for the award. He's a producer of the show. He briefly wrote for
"24," although he says there were no torture scenes in the episodes he worked

Retired Colonel Stuart Harrington is with us, too. He's a veteran
interrogator who led a classified review of interrogation practices in
Guantanamo Bay and Iraq, and now teaches interrogation techniques for the
Army. He participated in the meeting Danzig arranged last year between
veteran interrogators and the creative team behind "24" about realistic
portrayals of torture. The Human Rights First Award for Excellence in
Television will be given October 15th.

Welcome all of you to FRESH AIR.

David Danzig, let's start with you. What's the purpose of this new award?

Mr. DAVID DANZIG: Well, since 9/11 we've really seen a change in the way in
which torture is portrayed on television. It used to be that it was always
the bad guys who used abusive techniques on television shows. And we're
talking about, you know, the Nazis or the North Koreans, and when they used
these kinds of techniques, they never worked. But since 9/11 we've seen a
real shift in the way that these sorts of scenes are portrayed. We now
frequently on television have heroes, people like Jack Bauer on the show "24,"
who use abusive techniques, and when these guys use abusive techniques, they
almost all almost always, I mean, invariably they work. Jack Bauer leans in
on a subject and bim-bam-bang he gets the information that he wants.

And the problem with this is that it creates a mis-impression in viewers in
general, and young people in particular who are considering a career in the
armed services, that these sorts of techniques might work. And we've said to
ourselves, `Wait a minute. TV's a huge influence. Is there anybody who's
really depicting it in a nuanced, realistic fashion that leaves an impression
in the minds of viewers that this stuff doesn't work in the real world, that
kind of mimics the way in which it actually works?' We started to look for
that and that's how we came up with this idea of this award.

GROSS: Give us one or two examples of the shows that are nominated and why
they're nominated.

Mr. DANZIG: A good example might be the show "The Closer," which features a
deputy police chief, and she's a tough interrogator. She gets answers.
Almost every episode features a difficult interrogation in which she really
presses subjects. But what's unusual about her is she does not use abusive
techniques. She's not like Jack Bauer in that she's going to jam a knife in
someone's knee in order to get answers.

GROSS: Now, let me tell you, I was really surprised to find that an episode
of "The Shield" was nominated for an award because this is--I mean, I love the
show, but this is like an episode where Vic Mackey, like the lead cop on the
show, tortures somebody to death who he suspects--he's pretty sure--killed one
of his partners. And he's wrong, but he doesn't know he's wrong.

So Adam Fierro, you wrote that episode. Are you as surprised as I am that
it's getting a human rights award?

Mr. ADAM FIERRO: I was stunned. Well, we're nominated.

GROSS: Nominated, nominated. Yes, yes.

Mr. FIERRO: You don't normally think of Vic Mackey as an advocate for human
rights in any way, and he certainly is not. In this case, yeah, there was a
torture sequence that was very brutal and wound up being, I think, something
that expressed a point of view that Human Rights First was interested in. In
this particular case, Vic is torturing the wrong man, as you said. And he's
trying to extract information. He's beating someone to death with a chain
who's hung up in a remote building, and it's particularly vicious. And the
person who is not the man that Vic is looking for winds up giving him the
wrong lead. He tells him a lie. He says, `This person is the one you're
looking for,' and it sends Vic off to pursue that person, and that's one of
the flaws in terms of that type of torture. And one of the reasons why--and I
think, the colonel can speak to this much better than I can--but people,
suspects, people who are being tortured will lie to stop the abuse. In this
case, this is what happened to Vic, and that's what we illustrated in the show
in that particular scene.

GROSS: Let's listen to the final scene in the torture sequence from this
episode of "The Shield," and just to set it up for our listeners a little bit,
Vic Mackey, played by Michael Chiklis, you know, he's the head of a police
strike force that cracks down on gangs and drug dealers. This scene shows
Mackey at his most brutal and unlawful. And, you know, as we just heard, he's
torturing the wrong man. He doesn't realize he's the wrong man, and he's--you
know, the scene starts with him putting a hood on the guy and then he ties him
up by his hands and has him hanging and then he takes a chain and beats him.
And the man who was actually responsible for killing Vic's partner is one of
his fellow cops. And that cop, Shane, is in this scene, too, and he's the one
who keeps telling Vic to stop.

(Soundbite of "The Shield")

Mr. MICHAEL CHIKLIS: (As Vic Mackey) Hey! Hey! Just tell me what I want to
know and this will be over. Unh!

(Soundbite of grunts, heavy blows, heavy breathing)

Mr. CHIKLIS: (As Vic Mackey) Who else was involved?

(Soundbite of heavy blow)

Unidentified Man: (In character) I don't know nothing.

Mr. WALTER GOGGINS: (As Shane) Come one, man. He's not talking.

Mr. CHIKLIS: (As Vic Mackey) He will.

(Soundbite of heavy blow and grunt)

Mr. CHIKLIS: (As Vic Mackey) He'll talk. Unh! Who was it?
Did...(unintelligible)...get in touch with you? Kavanaugh? David Aceveda?
Was it Nadia? It was, it was that Salvadoran slut tipped you off. I knew it!

Mr. GOGGINS: (As Shane) Yo! Maybe he didn't do it, man.

Mr. CHIKLIS: (As Vic Mackey) If it wasn't Guardo, who was it?

Mr. GOGGINS: (As Shane) Well, look at him, man. If he had a name, don't you
think he would have told us by now?

Mr. CHIKLIS: (As Vic Mackey) That just means he was acting alone.

Mr. GOGGINS: (As Shane) Come on, this is crazy, man.

Mr. CHIKLIS: (As Vic Mackey) He killed Lem! Don't you remember his body,
his face? Do you think you can just forget that, huh? Don't you think he
deserves to die for what he did?

Mr. GOGGINS: (As Shane) Look, I'm asking you not to do this for me.

Mr. CHIKLIS: (As Vic Mackey) Why not?

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: And after that Vic Mackey shoots the guy. That's a scene from an
episode of "The Shield" that was written by one of my three guests, Adam
Fierro, and it's nominated for an award. It's a Human Rights First award for
a TV show that depicts torture and/or interrogation in a nuanced, realistic
fashion. And David Danzig is the person who came up with the idea for these
awards and is administrating them.

Why is this episode nominated?

Mr. DANZIG: To be honest, when we started looking at this clip, some of my
colleagues thought I was insane for thinking, oh, this might be actually want
we really want. But the reason that it's so good, I think, is that it isn't
stylized torture. This is what it probably is like, and on top of that, what
happens here is so different from what you see on other television shows like
"24." When the torture starts, the victim gives up false information instead
of immediately giving up the truth. What you frequently see on other shows is
that, when torture is employed, five seconds after it starts, a person who is
willing to die for his cause gives up information and the plot moves forward.
In this case, it leads to all sorts of problems for Mackey and others, and I
think that's very realistic and important.

GROSS: Colonel Herrington, let me bring you into the conversation. I feel
like we're living in a very odd time in our country when it comes to torture.
On the one hand, the country is so outraged about the abuses we saw at Abu
Ghraib, and at the same time, there's a lot of torture scenes in our
entertainment. What do you make of that?

Colonel STUART HERRINGTON: Well, I agree with David that there really was a
watershed event here with 911, and frankly, prior to 911, you know,
professional interrogators, if you would have said, you know, `The way to get
information is to torture and to apply force and water board,' we would have
mocked that and said it was unthinkable. We, traditionally, whether it was in
the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, the invasion of Panama, when we interrogated,
we depended upon our guile and our wits, knowledge of human psychology,
knowledge of the source himself, his language, his culture, the movement that
he's a member of and put all this information together with a heavy dose of
patience and stealth to essentially outwit the person and obtain the
information that you wanted. So the notion that we'd even be having this
debate, if you would have proposed it to me five years ago, I would have said
that's unthinkable.

GROSS: We'll talk more about torture, interrogation, and how TV depicts them
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: We're talking about torture, interrogation, and how TV depicts them.
My guest David Danzig of Human Rights First directs the Prime Time Torture
Project, which is about to give an award to a TV show that depicts torture or
interrogation in a realistic way. Also with us is Adam Fierro, who wrote an
episode of "The Shield," which is nominated for the award. And Colonel Stuart
Herrington, a veteran interrogator who led a classified review of
interrogation practices in Guantanamo Bay and Iraq.

Colonel Herrington, what are some of the myths about the effectiveness of

Col. HERRINGTON: Principally, apart from the myth that it's an effective way
to get information, the torture ethos, if you want to call it that, also shows
things that are just manifestly untrue. Such as that information could be
obtained quickly through interrogation when, in fact, most interrogators who
are indeed experienced and professional know that interrogating a subject is a
developmental process that takes time, and the idea that information is like a
water tap that you can turn it on by, you know, a brutal stroke, against the
detainee, that's a big myth.

And unfortunately that myth pervades the people who want information, and so
you find, for example, one of the things we learned in Iraq was that the chain
of command had this thirst for information and thought that they could just
tell the interrogators, you know, `Take the gloves off. We need this
information. We need it now.' And young interrogators, themselves not
uninfluenced by pop culture, embraced this. Embraced this when, in fact, of
course, genuine professionals understand interrogation is a human intelligence
developmental thing that takes time, stealth, guile, patience, and has its

Mr. DANZIG: Well, Colonel, you told me, one thing that I was stunned is that
the service men and women are actually--they're watching "24" season DVDs, and
that was part of the concern about whether, like, literally, directly drawing
their information from a Jack Bauer torture scene and then applying that in
the field. Is that accurate?

Col. HERRINGTON: Yes. In fact, when I taught Army interrogators here last
year in an organization that's been created to train interrogators and field
interrogators who don't fall into the traps that interrogators have fallen
into in Afghanistan and Iraq, I kept getting the question from the folks in
the auditorium, `Well, you know, this tender loving care approach, Colonel
Herrington, that you propose, it all sounds well and good, but what happens
when you have a prisoner whom you think knows this information and the clock
is ticking and the chain of command has this insatiable desire for the
information by sundown?' And they were relating to me the ticking time bomb
scenario that so pervades popular fiction--which, I must tell you, in the
interrogations in three wars and interrogations of hundreds of people, I never
encountered such a scenario. So it's the perfect hypothetical out of which
one creates drama, but in the real world I never saw it.

And I asked the sergeant major of the unit, `Where are they getting this idea
that, you know, the chain of command wants the information tonight and you
know, the person might have the keys to saving, you know, thousands and
thousands of lives?' And the answer was they get it from television. They get
it from the shows that are on TV, and of course "24" is the premiere show that
features that tactic.

GROSS: You know, I hear what you're saying, of course, but on the other hand,
I can't help but wonder why would somebody would give up information unless
they're going to pay serious consequences if they don't.

Col. HERRINGTON: There are many reasons why. Professional interrogators
prevail, or tend to prevail, when they use smart developmental tactics, and
the number of reasons and the number of methods is directly connected the
number of sources. That is to say, every source is a different unique
individual. For example, I have had people tell me things that only a few
hours before they were refusing steadfastly to tell anyone because I realized
that it was their birthday, they were miserable and their wife didn't know if
they were dead or alive. And by allowing the simple gesture of a phone call,
the person did a volte-face and became cooperative. That's one finite
example. I could spin examples like that for hours. For every individual...

GROSS: Well, give me another one. Give me another one.

Col. HERRINGTON: An individual who says that he has the key information that
we need, that the information is in an attache case at his home, and he'll
give us his address if we'll go get it and give it to him. We do that. We
bring it back, but when we open it in private we find that the real reason why
he asked us to go there was because the attache case was full of letters from
his mistress and he didn't want his wife to get them. And so we helped him by
getting it out of the apartment. And when we made it clear to him that we
knew what that was all about and that we understood it, and it was a very
human thing for him to do, he broke into tears because we'd saved his
marriage. And from that point on he was indebted. And even though it sounds
pretty crass, there was another example of just a key that led to a change in
the situation with respect to the person.

GROSS: Would you have used those letters to blackmail him after that, say,
`Unless you give us the information, we're going to your wife with these

Col. HERRINGTON: No, that would be crude and stupid. In fact, that never
needed to be said. He knew that we had the letters, and because he was the
sort of fellow he was--not an admirable fellow, somewhat corrupt--he
attributed to us in his mind the kinds of conduct that he himself might take
if he were in our situation. We never had to say a word.

GROSS: So did you get any information really worth getting from him?

Col. HERRINGTON: Superlative.


Col. HERRINGTON: Everything having to do with Noriega regime, secret
contacts with the PLO, the North Koreans, the Libyans, the Cubans.

GROSS: Now, you wrote a classified report on interrogation techniques in
Iraq. This was before the Abu Ghraib story broke. What were some of the
things you warned about in Iraq? Can you tell us or is that still classified?

Col. HERRINGTON: Actually, the report was written exclusively for the
general officer who invited me to Iraq to take a look at detainee

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Col. HERRINGTON: ...because she was concerned that they weren't in a good
state of health.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Col. HERRINGTON: It subsequently leaked to The Washington Post intact, by
means of which I have no knowledge. But I can state, since it's been a matter
of public record now, that I certainly was aware that they had serious
leadership problems and serious problems of how detainees were being taken
care of in more than one facility.

At Abu Ghraib, my team and I didn't see torture, not that one would expect
that they would, you know, do this for us or show it to a visitor from the
states. What we did see, however, was the perfect storm of, you know,
inexperienced officers on both the intelligence and the MP side of the house,
some very poor leadership, an insecure environment where these folks were
being mortared, where they had so many detainees that they were frightened of
a detainee uprising. They were overcrowded and there were huge pressures by
the chain of command for instant results. And that was sort of, if you will,
the perfect storm, you know, that led to the kinds of conduct that happened
out there.

GROSS: You've been to Guantanamo, too, haven't you?


GROSS: And what can you tell us about what you saw there that you thought
crossed a line?

Col. HERRINGTON: Generally speaking, what I saw at Guantanamo and in Iraq
shared the same problem, and that is that the professional understands that to
get information from people like this that you have to handle yourself in a
patient, developmental fashion, and that harsh conditions of captivity and
harsh treatment and sometimes lapsing into overt brutality is
counterproductive. And I didn't see at Guantanamo, nor did I see in Iraq the
kind of subtle, clever, well-thought-out interrogation operations of the sort
that we had run in either Vietnam, Panama or the first Desert Storm.

GROSS: Would you give me a sense of what was different in those operations,
like you say, well-thought-out plans. Like what--can you give us a sense of
what a well-thought-out plan looks like?

Col. HERRINGTON: Well, in the first place, one-size-fits-all approach to
every detainee, which those who recall the images of when they first set up
Guantanamo know what I'm talking about. Everybody's in orange jumpsuits.
Everybody's shackled. People are led around with an MP on each side of them.
They're brought to an interrogation room, and their one foot is shackled to
the floor, and two MPs sit there with arms folded while the interrogator comes
in and begins to, you know, direct a barrage of questions against the
detainee. That's a very unsophisticated, heavy-handed and ineffective
approach to interrogation. When I went to Guantanamo, that was the norm.
Prisoners were all lethal killers. The interrogator would be in a room with
them but with guards, the person shackled down, the type of thing that
communicates to the detainee that you're afraid of him, which a professional
interrogator would never countenance.

The notion of human interaction, the notion of treating this person one way
because of his culture or because of the way he seems in your assessment of
him compared to this person over here who might require a different suite of
options in how he's treated. All those things are the way one does it, and
one size fits all with orange jumpsuits, shackles and hoods is as far away
from that as you can get.

GROSS: You know, you keep saying that professionals know better than to use
these kinds of, you know, torture techniques. Are you implying that it's
amateurs who really didn't know better who were responsible for putting these
techniques into place?

Col. HERRINGTON: I'll do better than imply it, I'll say it. Yes, I believe
so. I believe that, for whatever reason, a school of thought took place or
took hold that the way to get information was to take the gloves off and that
after 911 a series of orders went out to the field which had to do with
basically an approach that, had they sought genuine professional advice from
people who really understood and knew the interrogation business, they would
have been counseled against it. But they were determined that they were going
to get this information, that it was a `save the United States' type of
situation, and they went down the slippery slope in approach in handling
detainees which has redounded terribly against our country.

GROSS: Are you counting the former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as
one of the, quote, "amateurs," when it comes to interrogation?

Col. HERRINGTON: Happened on his watch.

GROSS: We'll talk more about torture, interrogation, and how TV depicts them
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: We're talking about torture, interrogation, and how TV depicts them.
I have three guests. Colonel Stuart Herrington is a veteran interrogator who
led a classified review of interrogation practices in Guantanamo Bay and Iraq.
Adam Fierro wrote an episode of "The Shield" that is nominated for a Human
Rights First Award for Excellence in Television for depicting torture or
interrogation in a realistic way. David Danzig directs Human Rights First's
Prime Time Torture Project and is overseeing the award.

David, are you concerned about becoming the kind of pressure group that tries
to impose its agenda on the media and risk becoming almost a form of
censorship by going to TV shows and saying, `We object to what you're doing.
Maybe it would be better to do it this way?' And I know you're trying to come
at it from a very, you know, enlightened way, but nevertheless are you worried
about possibly crossing a line into the kind of pressure group that you
wouldn't want to be?

Mr. DANZIG: That's really a part of why we want to do this award, to show
that, in fact, it is an opportunity for television and television writers,
creators of television, to show torture in a way that not only is really
interesting but also doesn't have this negative, unintended consequence of
leading people to believe that torture works. So our goals here is to kind of
gently nudge people who work in Hollywood to think more deeply about torture
and the way in which they portray it.

GROSS: I guess this is something I'm curious about. And there's a question
for you, Adam...


GROSS: a TV writer. I know you've met with, you know, David Danzig
from Human Rights First and, you know, with Colonel Herrington, who is an
expert in interrogation and teaches interrogation. Would you also sit down
with other people who came knocking at the door who thought that violence
didn't belong on TV or that anything sexual didn't belong on TV or that
religion should be only shown in a certain light, in a positive light on TV.
I mean, like, once you open the door, are you worried about it being open to
everybody who has their own agenda and wants to change the way you write your

Mr. FIERRO: I don't think so. I think they're expressing a point of view.
And, listen, we are selling a product to an audience, and I think we never
lose sight of that. If an organization comes up and says `We don't like that'
or `Please be aware of that' or `Please be cautious of that,' it all goes into
the mix and we're all processing it. Because we're writing shows that are
intended to be viewed, and they're intended to be digested. I don't look at
that as a negative. I think as long as we're not restrictive--when it comes
to the point that the network says, `Well, you can't do that,' or `You can't
do that' or `You don't want to do that,' then it becomes limiting. But I'm
all about hearing people's points of view. I mean, I think the more, the

GROSS: I want to thank you all for talking with us. Thank you.

Mr. DANZIG: Thank you.

Mr. FIERRO: Thanks, Terry.

Col. HERRINGTON: Thank you.

GROSS: David Danzig directs Human Rights First's Prime Time Torture Project,
which on October 15th will give an award to a TV show that depicts torture or
interrogation in a realistic way.

Adam Fierro wrote an episode of "The Shield," which is nominated for the
award. Colonel Stuart Herrington is a veteran interrogator who led a
classified review of interrogation practices in Guantanamo Bay and Iraq.

We recorded this interview last week before The New York Times broke the story
that in 2005 the Justice Department issued secret opinions endorsing the use
of harsh interrogation techniques. These techniques include water boarding
and head-slapping. We wanted to get Colonel Herrington's reaction to the
Times story. After reading the article, Colonel Herrington wrote us that he
was not surprised by the news since the administration is under pressure to
protect intelligence personnel, who have been reassured that their methods
since 9/11 were legal. But he was disappointed because this shows that even
after the ugly revelations of misconduct by interrogators beginning in early
2004, the administration appears to remain bound by a misguided and
ill-informed belief that brutal interrogation means are effective in spite of
overwhelming feedback from professional interrogators that they are not.

You can download podcasts of our show by going to our Web site,


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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