Wednesday, June 18, 2008

SERE Training Used as a Legal Dodge?

A commenter we all know and love, elmo, says something worth noting:

I was glad to see them dig in to the obvious S.E.R.E. relationship I saw as clear from the beginning. Chickenhawks are so sloppy...

And that made me think of this issue a little more closely, and I wonder if the whole emphasis on SERE Training (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) wasn't just a big legal dodge that allowed the bureaucrats who were deciding how to go forward on detainee interrogations a form of legal cover in order to do what they felt they needed to do.

If you go by doctrine, then the doctrine says that someone who undergoes torture when they are captured will have a breaking point, and they will break, but what they will do at that breaking point is say anything and everything in order to get the torture to stop. That means, quite obviously, that torture is then not a means to get reliable information--torture is designed to break and damage the subject for other purposes. The military Code of Conduct spells it out:

V- When questioned, should I become a prisoner of war, I am required to give name, rank, service number, and date of birth. I will evade answering further questions to the utmost of my ability. I will make no oral or written statements disloyal to my country and its allies or harmful to their cause.

That "utmost" is a matter of seconds when being waterboarded. So when members of the military go through SERE, they will be broken with waterboarding. However, what they are doing at the SERE school is controlled and is done in a friendly environment--as in, there is no threat of compromising national secrets.

By extension, the involvement of the SERE school shouldn't surprise anyone:

The SERE program's chief psychologist, Col. Morgan Banks, issued guidance in early 2003 for the "behavioral science consultants" who helped to devise Guantánamo's interrogation strategy although he has emphatically denied that he had advocated the use of counter-resistance techniques used by SERE instructors to break down detainees. The New Yorker notes that in November, 2001 Banks was detailed to Afghanistan, where he spent four months at Bagram Air Base, "supporting combat operations against Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters".

Nor should it comfort us, either. Salon was all over this two years ago:

Human rights advocates have long suspected a link between interrogations in the "war on terror" and a secretive military survival school that trains elite U.S. troops to resist torture. Jane Mayer explored the evidence of a connection between the Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape school at Fort Bragg, N. C., and real-world interrogators in a July 2005 piece for the New Yorker. Now Salon has the first hard proof of that connection, via one document buried among 1,000 pages obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union through the Freedom of Information Act. A March 22, 2005, sworn statement by the former chief of the Interrogation Control Element at Guantánamo said instructors from SERE also taught their methods to interrogators of the prisoners in Cuba.

"When I arrived at GTMO," reads the statement, "my predecessor arranged for SERE instructors to teach their techniques to the interrogators at GTMO ... The instructors did give some briefings to the Joint Interrogation Group interrogators."

"This is the missing link," declared Leonard Rubenstein, executive director of Physicians for Human Rights. "It is proof that the SERE training was in fact used, for a time at least, as a basis for interrogations at Guantánamo." "That is what I inferred had happened," agreed retired Brig. Gen. Stephen Xenakis, former commanding general of the Southeast Regional Army Medical Command, "but I have never seen this documented anywhere." The sworn statement suggests that Fort Bragg was the incubator of the abuse that later migrated from Guantánamo to Abu Ghraib, and is further evidence of the systematic nature of torture in the war on terror.

The interrogations chief, whose name is redacted, but who is listed as serving at Guantánamo from December 2002 until June 2003, asserts that instructors from the SERE school taught techniques to interrogators at Guantánamo sometime before his arrival, a period when the Department of Defense was developing some of the aggressive and controversial interrogation protocols that later surfaced in Iraq. The statement was produced as part of an investigation by Air Force Lt. Gen. Randall Schmidt into alleged "degrading and abusive" treatment of prisoner Mohammed al-Khatani, the so-called 20th hijacker.

Salon was incorrect--SERE was never hidden. The methods used were, obviously, keep secret to deny them to any possible enemy. When the Air Force tried to add the component that surfaced during the first Gulf War--the sexual abuse of females held by the Iraqis in the 1990-91 conflict--they ran into all sorts of problems when there were questions about the sensitivity of it all.

If you'll recall, when they switched from having the FBI interrogate Khatani to having the DoD interrogate him, they had to wait for Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld to approve the methods:

[Late Nov 2002] The Pentagon informs the FBI that it will again take over interrogations of Guantanamo detainee Mohamed al-Khatani, believing that the use of aggressive techniques, which are about to be authorized by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (see November 27, 2002), will be more successful. [New York Times, 6/21/2004] However, the first tactic used against al-Khatani is a subtle one. According to the detention logs of al-Khatani, or “Detainee 063,” his interrogators suggest that he has been spared by Allah to reveal the true meaning of the Koran and to help bring down Osama bin Laden. During a routine medical check, a sergeant whispers to al-Khatani: “What is God telling you right now? Your 19 friends died in a fireball and you weren’t with them. Was that God’s choice? Is it God’s will that you stay alive to tell us about his message?” Al-Khatani reacts violently to the exhortation, throwing his head back and butting the sergeant in the eye. Two MPs wrestle him to the ground, and as al-Khatani thrashes and tries to spit on the sergeant, he crouches down next to the prisoner and says: “Go ahead and spit on me. It won’t change anything. You’re still here. I’m still talking to you and you won’t leave until you’ve given God’s message.”

Now, I have no problem with that whatsoever. I have zero issue with that kind of provocation and that kind of leading questioning--it's the physical torture and driving them insane I'm not in favor of.

So the real question is--how could they take training used to keep US personnel from breaking (even though it is clear that there is no possibility of preventing them from doing so) and extrapolate that into the legal basis and doctrine for torturing people when we know that the techniques will break someone yet yield nearly useless information given up under duress?

Someone somewhere just decided to torture people for the hell of it, rather than use the long, slow process of building rapport, which is proven to work and is proven to give the interrogators useful information.

Anyway, that's my imperfect take on this.

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