Exploring the Bush Torture Regime’s SERE Origins


Spencer Ackerman has an excellent article on the findings of a Senate Armed Services Committee inquiry into interrogation policy, exploring the torture system’s origins in the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency’s SERE torture resistance training. Note that those who applied these methods were specifically warned that they were illegal and unlikely to work:

By September 2002, Pentagon officials and Guantanamo interrogators had grown “frustrated” with their inability to collect as much useful intelligence from interrogations as they had expected from Guantanamo detainees, according to the report. A JPRA-sponsored training session for interrogators that month introduced the concept of exploiting “phobias” and playing off cultural sensitivities of Arabs and Muslims. JPRA instructor Joseph Witsch warned a superior, “We are out of our sphere when we begin to profess the proper ways to exploit these detainees,” but the training continued. Witsch later acknowledged to a Pentagon working group on interrogations, “The physical and psychological pressures we apply in training violate national and international laws. … I hope someone is explaining this to all these folks asking for our techniques and methodology!”

Several Pentagon officials were asking for precisely that. A “Behavioral Science Consultation Team” established at Guantanamo and in frequent contact with SERE advisers counseled a Guantanamo working group on whether the interrogators had “authorization to use interrogation approaches that had not been taught to interrogators” at the U.S. Army’s intelligence center and were not contained in its Field Manual on interrogations. One SERE adviser told the BSCT, “Bottom line: the likelihood that the use of physical pressures will increase the delivery of accurate information from a detainee is very low.” Yet the working group approved a decision — over some BSCT and SERE reservations — to recommend the use of expanded techniques on a high-value detainee named Mohammed al-Qatani that were “influenced by SERE,” according to the report.

As Cato Vice President Gene Healy says “Imagine if, shortly after 9/11, someone had told you that the US government would adopt an interrogation policy based on Chinese Communist techniques designed to elicit false confessions. You’d have thought that person was pretty cynical.” But that’s what they did. Really. SERE training is designed to help stiffen soldiers’ resistance to the sort of torture the North Vietnamese used to “break” John McCain and force him to “confess” to all manner of crimes. It specifically arises out of the experience of American detainees in the Korean War to imitate tactics applied by Communist regimes for the purpose of deriving false confessions. And why shouldn’t it? That’s what torture is good for.