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Shrinks and the SERE Technique at Guantanamo
The Defense Department (DoD) has just declassified a report from their Inspector General (OIG) looking at the various investigations that the Department has conducted into repeated claims of detainee abuse–a.k.a. "torture" and "cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment"–banned by international and United States law. The report documents that the various DoD "investigations were, individually and in total, inadequate:
Allegations of detainee abuse were not consistently reported, investigated, or managed in an effective, systematic, and timely manner. Multiple reporting channels were available for reporting allegations and, once reported, command discretion could be used in determining the action to be taken on the reported allegation. We did not identify any specific allegations that were not reported or reported and not investigated. Nevertheless, no single entity within any level of command was aware of the scope and breadth of detainee abuse.
Perhaps the most important information in this report, however, is that it provides further documentation that psychologists were central to the development of the abusive interrogation paradigm developed at Guantanamo and migrated to Abu Ghraib and other Iraqi prisons. In particular, the OIG provides concrete evidence that techniques developed in the US military’s SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) program to help US troops at high risk of becoming POWs evade capture and resist breaking under abusive interrogations were systematically imported to Guantanamo and, less systematically, to Iraq and Afghanistan. As the report describes:
"DoD SERE training, sometimes referred to as code of conduct training, prepares select military personnel with survival and evasion techniques in case they are isolated from friendly forces. The schools also teach resistance techniques that are designed to provide U.S. military members, who may be captured or detained, with the physical and mental tools to survive a hostile interrogation and deny the enemy the information they wish to obtain. SERE training incorporates physical and psychological pressures, which act as counterresistance techniques, to replicate harsh conditions that the Service member might encounter if they are held by forces that do not abide by the Geneva Conventions." (p. 23)
As part of the SERE program, trainees are subjected to abuse, including sleep deprivation, sexual and cultural humiliation, and, in some instances, waterboarding, described by one SERE graduate thus:
"[Y]ou are strapped to a board, a washcloth or other article covers your face, and water is continuously poured, depriving you of air, and suffocating you until it is removed, and/or inducing you to ingest water. We were carefully monitored (although how they determined these limits is beyond me), but it was a most unpleasant experience, and its threat alone was sufficient to induce compliance, unless one was so deprived of water that it would be an unintentional means to nourishment.
Former Air Force officer and now psychoanalyst Eric Anders described his SERE training experience thusly:
"I remember a variety of sadistic abuses, often in the form of mind games and humiliation. It was a horrible experience, but I imagine it might have prepared me to be in the position some of the Iraqi prisoners have unfortunately found themselves in."
Central to SERE is the role of psychologists. A psychologist is required to be present during certain aspects of the process, such as waterboarding as a "safety officer," to stop the training if (s)he perceives the trainee is being overly-traumatized.
In 2005, the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer reported evidence that interrogators at Guantanamo were being trained in SERE techniques; they were "reverse engineering" the resistance techniques in order to figure out how to break down detainees. While Mayer reported suspicions, direct evidence of SERE involvement at Guantanamo was lacking for another year, till, in July 2006 Salon’s Mark Benjamin, in Torture Teachers reported documentary evidence that SERE was, indeed, taught at Guantanamo. In addition to documentary evidence that SERE techniques were taught at Guantanamo, Benjamin pointed out the similarities between what is done to US troops during SERE training and what was done to US detainees:
"There are striking similarities between the reported detainee abuse at both Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib and the techniques used on soldiers going through SERE school, including forced nudity, stress positions, isolation, sleep deprivation, sexual humiliation and exhaustion from exercise."
Michael Otterman, in his marvelous and very disturbing new book, American Torture, put together then extant evidence of SERE reverse-engineering. Though the use of SERE techniques at US detention facilities was hardly in doubt after the reporting of Mayer, Benjamin, and Otterman , it was not clear until the OIG report whether the use of the techniques was intentional or inadvertent, a result of widespread exposure to them by US personnel during training.
The new OIG report resolves this question, containing as it does official admissions that SERE was, indeed systematically taught at Guantanamo and in Iraq.
"Counterresistance techniques taught by the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency [the agency responsible for SERE training] contributed to the development of interrogation policy at the U.S. Southern Command. According to interviewees, at some point in 2002, the U.S. Southern Command began to question the effectiveness of the Joint Task Force 170 (JTF-170), the organization at Guantanamo that was responsible for collecting intelligence from a group of hard core al Qaeda and Taliban detainees.
Counterresistance techniques were introduced because personnel believed that interrogation methods used were no longer effective in obtaining useful information from some detainees. On June 17, 2002, the Acting Commander, Southern Command requested that the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) provide his command with an external review of ongoing detainee intelligence collection operations at Guantanamo Bay, which included an examination of information and psychological operations plans. The CJCS review recommended that the Federal Bureau of Investigation Behavioral Science Unit, the Army’s Behavioral Science Consultation Team, the Southern Command Psychological Operations Support Element, and the JTF-170 clinical psychologist develop a plan to exploit detainee vulnerabilities. The Commander, JTF-170 expanded on the CJCS recommendations and decided to also consider SERE training techniques and other external interrogation methodologies as possible DoD interrogation alternatives" (pp. 24-25).
As a result of this review, SERE was introduced at Guantanamo. Notice that psychologists were key to this process:
"On September 16, 2002, the Army Special Operations Command and the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency co-hosted a SERE psychologist conference at Fort Bragg for JTF-170 [the military component responsible for interrogations at Guantanamo] interrogation personnel. The Army’s Behavioral Science Consultation Team from Guantanamo Bay also attended the conference. Joint Personnel Recovery Agency personnel briefed JTF-170 representatives on the exploitation techniques and methods used in resistance (to interrogation) training at SERE schools. The JTF-170 personnel understood that they were to become familiar with SERE training and be capable of determining which SERE information and techniques might be useful in interrogations at Guantanamo. Guantanamo Behavioral Science Consultation Team personnel understood that they were to review documentation and standard operating procedures for SERE training in developing the standard operating procedure for the JTF-170, if the command approved those practices. The Army Special Operations Command was examining the role of interrogation support as a " Sere Psychologist competency area" (p. 25, emphasis added.)
For those of opposed to the participation of psychologists in abusive interrogations, this document contains the first definitive proof that the Behavioral Science Consultation Teams (BSCTs), consisting at that point of psychologists and psychiatrists (later, the military announced that they preferred psychologists for this role), were deliberately trained in abusive SERE techniques.
According to the OIG report, SERE psychologists were apparently not directly involved in individual interrogations. Rather, their role was to train those conducting or supervising the interrogations:
"On September 24, 2002, a Joint Personnel Recovery Agency representative at the SERE conference recommended in a conference memorandum report to his Commander that their organization "not get directly involved in actual operations." Specifically, the memorandum states that the agency had "no actual experience in real world prisoner handling," developed concepts based "on our past enemies," and assumes that "procedures we use to exploit our personnel will be effective against the current detainees." In a later interview, the Commander, Joint Personnel Recovery Agency stated that his agency’s support to train and teach "was so common that he probably got 15 similar reports [memoranda] a week" (p. 25).
Indeed, the report documents that SERE instructors went to Guantanamo and provided training:
"On at least two occasions, the JTF-170 requested that Joint Personnel Recovery Agency instructors be sent to Guantanamo to instruct interrogators in SERE counterresistance interrogation techniques. SERE instructors from Fort Bragg responded to Guantanamo requests for instructors trained in the use of SERE interrogation resistance techniques" (p. 26).
These efforts led to a October 11, 2002 memorandum and legal brief requesting approval of a selection of these SERE techniques. This request led to December 2, 2002 approval of many of these SERE-based techniques by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld
All evidence is that these SERE techniques continued to be used, with active participation of the BST psychologists. For example, it is well documented (see the interrogation log) that the chair of the Guantanamo BSCT team, psychologist Major John Leso participated in the abusive interrogation (a.k.a. torture) of prisoner 063, Mohammed al-Qahtani. A July 14, 2004 memo from the FBI to the Army Criminal Investigation Command documents the effects of this interrogation on al-Qatani:
"In September or October of 2002 FBI agents observed that a canine was used in an aggressive manner to intimidate detainee __ after he had been subjected to intense isolation for over three months. During that time period, __ was totally isolated (with the exception of occasional interrogations) in a cell that was always flooded with light. By late November, the detainee was evidencing behavior consistent with extreme psychological trauma (talking to non-existent people, reporting hearing voices, crouching in the corner of a cell covered with a sheet for hours on end). It is unknown to the FBI whether such extended isolation was approved by DoD authorities."
SERE in Iraq and Afghanistan
According to the report, these SERE techniques "migrated" to Afghanistan and Iraq:
"Counterresistance interrogation techniques in the U.S. Central Command Area of Operation derived from multiple sources that included migration of documents and personnel, the JTF-Guantanamo Assessment Team, and the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency" (p. 26, emphasis added).
The report also provides direct evidence that SERE techniques were deliberately brought to Iraq.
"The Joint Personnel Recovery Agency was also responsible for the migration of counterresistance interrogation techniques into the U.S. Central Command’s area of responsibility. In September 2003, at the request of the Commander, TF-20, the Commander, Joint Personnel Recovery Agency sent an interrogation assessment team to Iraq to provide advice and assistance to the task force interrogation mission. The TF-20 was the special mission unit that operated in the CJTF-7 area of operations" (p. 28).
In fact, TF-20 was a 40-person special forces unit, with its own "private aviation unit" tasked with capturing or killing former Iraqi Baath leadership and resistance leaders ("high value targets"). TF-20 was accused of being "trigger happy," leading to innocent civilian deaths. Those captured by TF-20 were, according to the OIG report, subject to SERE techniques. In Iraq it also appears that SERE staff got to participate directly in interrogations:
"The Commander, Joint Personnel Recovery Agency, explained that he understood that the detainees held by TF-20 were determined to be Designated Unlawful Combatants (DUCs), not Enemy Prisoners of War (EPW) protected by the Geneva Convention and that the interrogation techniques were authorized and that the JPRA team members were not to exceed the standards used in SERE training on our own Service members. He also confirmed that the U.S. Joint Forces Command J-3 and the Commanding Officer, TF-20 gave a verbal approval for the SERE team to actively participate in "one or two demonstration" interrogations" (p. 28).
It appears that TF-20 were so brutal in their application of SERE techniques that there was disagreement between SERE and TF-20 staff regarding the appropriateness of using the SERE-based techniques:
"SERE team members and TF-20 staff disagreed about whether SERE techniques were in compliance with the Geneva Conventions. When it became apparent that friction was developing, the decision was made to pull the team out before more damage was done to the relationship between the two organizations. The SERE team members prepared After Action Reports that detailed the confusion and allegations of abuse that took place during the deployment" (p. 28).
American Psychological Association response
With the release of the OIG’s report, it is now irrefutable that both SERE psychologists and Guantanamo BSCT psychologists were involved in the development of these forms of interrogation abuse, forms of interrogation that clearly constitute psychological torture and were illegal under the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and various US laws until the 2006 Military Commissions Act granted immunity to those who had previously broken these laws during the "Global War On Terror."
Since psychologists became aware that their profession was being utilized to teach and conduct abusive interrogations, there has been a movement among them to ban participation in abusive interrogations. In response, the American Psychological Association (APA), the main psychologist professional organizations adopted a resolution condemning torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and forbidding members to participate in abusive treatment.
However, like the Bush administration, the APA is always against torture and abusive treatment but never actually sees it. Thus, the APA has never expressed concern as reports have come flooding out suggesting that abuse treatment (whether formally "torture" or merely "cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment") is common in US detention facilities holding so-called enemy combatants. Neither has the APA expressed concern at the repeated reports of psychologist participation in abusive interrogations. Rather, they have attacked the critics of psychologist abuse. In a statement that he probably now regrets for making so obvious his contempt for those shedding light on psychologists’ role in abusive interrogations, the 2006 APA President, Gerald Koocher, wrote: "A number of opportunistic commentators masquerading as scholars have continued to report on alleged abuses by mental health professionals."
However, the APA, like other health provider professional organizations felt the heat as these reports escalated. Thus, in June 2005 they convened a Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS), clearly designed to provide a rubber stamp on the participation of psychologists in national security interrogations. After 2_ days of deliberations this Task Force concluded:
"It is consistent with the APA Code of Ethics for psychologists to serve in consultative roles to interrogation- or information-gathering processes for national security-related purposes. While engaging in such consultative and advisory roles entails a delicate balance of ethical considerations, doing so puts psychologists in a unique position to assist in ensuring that such processes are safe and ethical for all participants."
Of course, the value of a Task Force report depends upon the composition and expertise of the membership of that Task Force. So who did the APA see fit to include on its Task Force? Strangely, when the report was released, it did not include a list of members; its authorship was, rather, anonymous. When members asked who was on the task Force, they were told the membership was confidential. (For the record it should be noted that the PENS membership, while kept from the public and the broader Association membership, was, in fact, released to the APAs Council of Representatives) When, a year later, the membership was finally published by Mark Benjamin in Salon, it was revealed that six of nine voting members were from the military and intelligence agencies with direct connections to interrogations at Guantanamo and elsewhere; the conclusion of the task Force’s deliberations was obviously foregone.
Especially relevant, given the revelations in this newly-released OIG, at least two of the members of this Task Force had direct SERE connections. Captain Bryce E. Lefeve had served at the Navy SERE school from 1990 to 1993 before joining the special forces and becoming the "Joint Special Forces Task Force psychologist to Afghanistan in 2002, where he lectured to interrogators and was consulted on various interrogation techniques." (Criously,, he has "lectured on Brainwashing: The Method of Forceful Interrogation".)
But perhaps most disturbingly, on the task force was Colonel Morgan Banks. His biography states that "[h]e is the senior Army Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) Psychologist, responsible for the training and oversight of all Army SERE Psychologists, who include those involved in SERE training. He provides technical support and consultation to all Army psychologists providing interrogation support. His initial duty assignment as a psychologist was to assist in establishing the Army’s first permanent SERE training program involving a simulated captivity experience."
Given what the OIG’s report reveals about the central role of SERE in the development of US abusive interrogation techniques, as well as revelations regarding other PENS members, it appears ever more likely that the APA appointed some of this country’s top torturers to formulate its policy on participation in abusive interrogations. The PENS report lacks any credibility. If the APA maintained a shred of decency, they would take the opportunity provided by the release of the OIG report to admit that they made a mistake in creating the PENS Task Force and would immediately set aside the PENS report and begin a new open discussion of the facts and the ethics involved in participation in national security interrogations.
In addition, if the APA were really concerned about ethics and decency, they would join the call by Physicians for Human Rights and by bioethicist Steven Miles for an independent Congressional (or Congressional sponsored) investigation into detainee abuse and the role of psychologists and other health professionals in that abuse. For only a full investigation can clear up the question of exactly what types of abuse went on in the US detention facilities and exactly what role did psychologists and other health professionals play in these abuses. If, as the APA repetitively states as if a mantra, its policies are based upon "our belief that having psychologists consult with interrogation teams makes an important contribution toward keeping interrogations safe and ethical," then the APA would surely want an investigation to reveal any abuses that occurred so as to help prevent future abuses. Of course, if, despite the mountains of evidence, psychologists truly are innocent of involvement in detainee abuse, only a full investigation could clear the air.
Unfortunately, I don’t expect the APA to set aside the PENS report nor to endorse an independent investigation of detainee abuse. All evidence is that, from the beginning, APA actions have had one goal in mind, to maintain psychologist involvement in interrogations at all cost. After 9/11, the APA sought to show the government that psychologists were key players in "homeland security" [see Making psychological research a priority for countering terrorism]. To eschew involvement, abuse or not, would be to forsake the access and influence for which they have fought so hard.
STEPHEN SOLDZ is psychoanalyst, psychologist, public health researcher, and faculty member at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. He maintains the Psychoanalysts for Peace and Justice web site and the Psyche, Science, and Society blog.