St. Petersburg Times
Special report
Video report
  • For their own good
    Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
  • More video reports
Multimedia report
Print Email this storyEmail story Comment Email editor
Fill out this form to email this article to a friend
Your name Your email
Friend's name Friend's email
Your message

Writer's four-letter words struck a softer tone

Joseph Bernard Kelly says that as a CIA interrogator, he didn't torture or act violently.He used a kinder approach to get information from the enemy.

Published July 9, 2006

BROOKSVILLE - Joseph Bernard Kelly, a military man of some 30 years, most as an officer, carved a career of four-letter words. But not the words you'd expect.

His weren't the harsh, demeaning indictments that leap to mind in the strict discipline of boot camp tales. Nor were they commands barked at slackers. Not even egregious stereotypical two-worders that would paint enemies with a broad brush.

Not that the now 75-year-old retiree living in Brooksville didn't observe such treatment while serving in the Army and Air Force in Vietnam in the 1970s.

But Kelly had an uncomfortable feeling that such tactics didn't produce the desired results as he oversaw snatch-and-detain operations and interrogation of enemy combatants and political bigwigs, listened to complaints of Vietnamese villagers and counseled the country's national police in their dealings with prisoners.

Kelly knew of threats to throw the Viet Cong out of helicopters if they didn't divulge information. The enemy's mind-set was, " 'If you start torturing me, I'll tell you what you want to hear,' " Kelly explained. "We were getting incorrect information."

Although Kelly had worked deep cover on and off with the Central Intelligence Agency in his regular military service, it wasn't until he was demobilized that he signed on as a contract operative with the CIA under the auspices of the Army. There he employed tactics in dealing with the enemy that he had considered for more than a year before he put them into play.

Kelly's credo of four-letter words: care, kind, firm, sometimes pity. He launched the first such case study program to deal with prisoners built on compassion, benevolence, tenderness, humaneness and charity.

It worked, he says.

In fact, his modus operandi was so successful that his superior at the time, field ambassador William Colby, later director of the CIA, had Kelly tout and teach his techniques to international forces and the national police throughout Vietnam.

Kelly's initiative and its results are detailed in a book, Confessions of a CIA Interrogator, written with Kelly by author Ben R. Games of Ellenton. Under publication consideration by Air Leaf Publishers of Martinsville, Ind., the work also has attracted the attention of at least two California film studios, Air Leaf president Carl Lau said.

Air Leaf has published several of Games' softcover books under the imprint Little Big Books. But Confessions is a big book running to 500 pages, likely a hardcover, Lau said.

Games, whom Kelly first met in Okinawa in 1948 and reconnected with during their military service over the years, persuaded Kelly to write of his experiences.

Kelly, who says he's blessed with total recall, including emotions of each situation, penned a draft of the book over just three weeks, writing daily from 2 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Penned, indeed. He wrote it in longhand. "I wore out a lot of pens," Kelly said with a chuckle. "I never wore out a pen before."

He mailed a chapter at a time to his friend Games, now 82, who transposed it to typescript, checked Kelly's sources to confirm their accuracy, edited the work and mailed it back to Kelly for his okay.

"It is a biography," Games said. "It happens to be nonfiction."

Kelly calls the book true adventures. He has supporting documentation to back it up as well as transcripts of more recent interviews with those who participated with him in operations.

While the book is riveting, like a compelling war novel - "almost like a techno-thriller," publisher Lau added - "it's all very factual." Lau's role includes verifying Kelly's reports.

The military declassified the information about Kelly's exploits just two years ago, which led to the writing now.

Among Kelly's revelations, and in tune with his benevolent nature, the operative counseled the Special Forces, Navy SEALs and Marine reconnaissance forces working for him: "I didn't want anyone killed. I didn't want any actions. I wanted to get this guy or whomever in for interrogation."

In three months, Kelly's operations turned more than 300 Viet Cong, meaning he brought them to the other side. "I convinced with kindness," he said. "I showered with sympathy. Kindness and sympathy made a spectacular favorable impression."

He offered such inducements as medical and dental care, vocational training, fabric to make clothing. Most of those he turned were women, ages 14 to 64.

He would dress them in disguises to look like men or boys and ask them to point out Viet Cong.

One such convert was a 15-year-old girl standing outside a Vietnamese aide station, unattended, cradling a compound broken arm. If he would get her American medical aid - local medical care was not advanced and she had a poor chance of full recovery - would she point out the bad guys for him?

Kelly had to sneak her into a makeshift facility set up in a trailer because U.S. medical personnel weren't allowed to treat natives. Doctors and nurses donated their skills. Recalling the incident, Kelly choked and teared up: "When she woke up, I was holding her hand."

The girl helped Kelly's unit capture 13 Viet Cong.

Kelly then set her up in an interrogation room, where a Korean colonel was about to visit and hear of Kelly's techniques. The Korean White Horse Division was known for its harsh tactics: killing Viet Cong and hoisting their heads on pikes, Kelly said. When the colonel saw her - "the most beautiful girl I saw in Vietnam," Kelly declared - he was overcome with her situation. She had been offered anything she wanted, and all she asked for was a mosquito net over her bed. The Korean bent. "We became the best of friends," Kelly said of the former torturer.

In another instance, when Kelly walked into a province (state) police station, he saw a young woman with a hose inserted in her vagina, her abdomen extended. Kelly called for a stop, for a medic. "And I said, 'Chief, we can do better than this.' "

Kelly apologized for what happened to her. He added, "If you cooperate with me, I'll pay you for every Viet Cong you bring in, I'll get you clemency, I'll change your name, I'll send you anywhere."

She acquiesced.

"Money is the most important thing to them. Family is second," Kelly explained. "Country is somewhere down the line."

Subterfuge was sometimes necessary. A People's Republican Army bigwig, a woman, was being held and wouldn't talk. "She wanted to be a martyr," Kelly said.

"I thought, what I've got to do is blow her, get her where the VC wouldn't trust her anymore."

He took her to a POW camp where high-ranking Viet Cong were interred. Kelly pointed out one of the inmates and told the woman, " 'We're going to beat the snot out of him in front of all the other prisoners.' And since she was with us, it looked like she fingered him. She knew she'd be dead on the street in two hours. She turned, and she identified more VC than anyone in Na Trang."

Kelly, big on getting into another country's culture, learned that Vietnamese people take palm reading seriously. He studied the form. Interviewing a young married woman, he asked for her palm and began to "read" it. He already had a dossier on the woman with pertinent facts about her life. Kelly came to a line on her palm and announced that she had a lover. Convinced of his powers and what he might do with them, she turned.

"It was a different technique. You have all the time in the world to try everything," Kelly said.

Sometimes it was as little as a bowl of candy offered to a detainee, who would stuff tidbits in his pockets. Sometimes a soft drink. Sometimes telling about his or her family. "Not, what do you know," Kelly explained. "We'll get to that later." Kindness and finesse.

Not everything turned out roses. Kelly interviewed and turned a 14-year-old girl whose immediate family had been killed. Kelly and his wife were preparing to adopt her. She was looking forward to an education in the United States. But before she left, she wanted to visit her one remaining aunt in North Vietnam. She trekked off. "They cut off her head," Kelly said sadly of the Viet Cong, who made her for an informer.

Most of the time, however, his techniques worked, Kelly said, and he believes his writing about them can be instructive even today.

He sees what is happening in Iraq, where there have been allegations of torture in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and says there is a better way to go about the business of interrogation. But he says he can understand how those incidents happen.

"Interrogations are like a bargaining sessions," he said, and not everyone is equipped to do the work.

"You do have to have a background on their culture, getting into their heads," he said. "Young people don't have the moxie. Young interrogators don't want to go the extra mile."

Publisher Lau says the book is generating a lot of interest. This is "well, well beyond" Games' other sort of down-home books. "It's a different style of writing when writing about the CIA, the military, senators, lots of people," Lau said. "His style (in Confessions) is more the Tom Clancy type."

Getting into print is not foremost for Kelly. He yearns for two Purple Hearts for injuries he suffered in Vietnam: one a broken back in a truck rollover when he tried to avoid hitting a herd of cows the Viet Cong drove across the road to stop him, the other when the house in which he was staying took mortar fire and his hearing was impaired.

Although official documents detail his injuries and their circumstances, and civilian employees of the government are eligible for the honor, U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite's office says it has not been able to confirm his CIA contract service.

Kelly has numerous medals awarded by the South Vietnamese government, but the U.S. military won't admit to his wartime service.

He is hoping his book will prove it.

Beth N. Gray may be contacted at

[Last modified July 8, 2006, 22:35:37]

Share your thoughts on this story

[an error occurred while processing this directive]
Subscribe to the Times
Click here for daily delivery
of the St. Petersburg Times.

Email Newsletters