Opponents of last week's release of memos detailing CIA interrogation techniques argue that they will provide enemies of the United States with a training manual to prepare their operatives for capture. The irony is that the U.S. military appears to have done the exact opposite, taking a training program that had been designed to prepare American soldiers to withstand torture by communist regimes seeking to extract false confessions and twisting it into a highly controversial interrogation manual.
The story of that mutation emerges in disquieting detail in a new report by the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) on the treatment of detainees in U.S. custody. It shows how U.S. interrogators at Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo Bay and camps in Afghanistan based some of their interrogations on techniques taken from the military's Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) training program. These techniques included waterboarding, walling (slamming detainees into a flexible wall), sleep deprivation, hooding and using dogs to inspire fear. (See pictures of life inside Guantánamo.)
Although an executive summary of the report was released in December; the full version which appears to have survived the Pentagon's declassification review with only mild redaction will likely have much greater impact, coming on the heels of the CIA "torture memos" released last week.
In a statement, SASC chairman Senator Carl Levin said the report "represents a condemnation of both the Bush Administration's interrogation policies and of senior Administration officials who attempted to shift the blame for abuse such as that seen at Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo Bay and Afghanistan to low-ranking soldiers."
While much of the controversy over interrogation and detention practices at Guantánamo has centered on the CIA, the SASC report puts the spotlight firmly on the Pentagon specifically on former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, his DOD lawyer Jim Haynes, his policy chief Douglas Feith, Guantánamo commanders Major General Michael Dunleavy and Major General Geoffrey Miller, and a raft of other DOD officials. It offers a detailed account purporting to show how these officials some of them knowingly, others unwittingly allowed SERE techniques to be used for interrogation. It suggests, too, that many SERE experts and military lawyers raised concerns about and objections to this reverse engineering of techniques used in courses to train Americans to survive captures by communist regimes.
The process began in December 2001, when the DOD's office of general counsel asked the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA), which oversees the SERE program, about detainee "exploitation." Within a few months, SERE trainers were training military interrogators bound for Gitmo. (The JPRA would also pass on its expertise to the CIA.)
Soon afterward, the first alarms began to sound. Jerald Ogrisseg, an Air Force SERE psychologist, warned JPRA chief of staff Daniel Baumgartner that waterboarding detainees was illegal. In October 2002, Lieut. Colonel Morgan Banks, an Army SERE psychologist, warned officials at Gitmo of the risks of using SERE techniques for interrogation, pointing out that even with the Army's careful monitoring, injuries and accidents did happen. "The risk with real detainees is increased exponentially," he wrote.
But by then, the Department of Justice's Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) had already issued two legal opinions, signed by Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee, declaring that the techniques did not amount to torture. JPRA training for Gitmo interrogators was stepped up. In December 2002, with Rumsfeld's authorization, officials of the Joint Task Force at Gitmo devised a standard operating procedure for the use of many SERE techniques to interrogate detainees.
Rumsfeld would rescind his authorization in a manner of weeks, after the Navy General Counsel, Alberto Mora, raised concerns about many techniques, arguing that they violated U.S. and international laws and constituted, at worst, torture. Mora met Haynes and warned him that the "interrogation policies could threaten [Rumsfeld's] tenure and could even damage the presidency."
But even after Rumsfeld in January 2003 rescinded the authority for the use of SERE techniques at Gitmo, they remained in use in Afghanistan, and later in Iraq. Since Rumsfeld never declared these techniques illegal, military lawyers down the line were able to cite his original authorization as Pentagon policy. JPRA instructors would eventually travel to Iraq to train military interrogators there.
In the summer of 2004, the JPRA was even considering sending trainers to Afghanistan, prompting another SERE psychologist, Colonel Kenneth Rollins, to warn his colleagues by e-mail: "[W]e need to really stress the difference between what instructors do at SERE school (done to INCREASE RESISTANCE capability in students) versus what is taught at interrogator school (done to gather information). What is done by SERE instructors is by definition ineffective interrogator conduct. Simply stated, SERE school does not train you on how to interrogate, and things you 'learn' there by osmosis about interrogation are probably wrong if copied by interrogators."
The final irony: the torture techniques around which the SERE training was devised were used by Chinese interrogators during the Korean War, not to gather actionable intelligence but to force false confessions from captured U.S. soldiers confessions that could then be used in anti-American propaganda.