30+ torture memos remain sealed while thousands of torture photos will eventually be released. Be prepared: Learn the deep history of US torture in SERE, Vietnam, Latin America, GMTO, Black Sites and beyond in American Torture.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Nuts & Bolts: How U.S. Organized Torture Program

Posted by Valtin at 11:25 PM |

The Armed Services Committee's hearings last week on interrogation and torture gave us a startling look into how torture was taught at the Naval Prison at Guantanamo Bay. Most articles have not bothered to look deeply into what was discussed in meetings between officials of the Navy's Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape, or SERE, program and ranking officers and personnel at Guantanamo. This article will look in some detail at what actually occurred. (At the end, I will address an important correction and clarification to an earlier article on SERE.)

As Mark Benjamin writes in his "timeline to Bush government torture":
Soon after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Pentagon and the CIA began an orchestrated effort to tap expertise from the military's Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape school, for use in the interrogation of terrorist suspects. The U.S. military's SERE training is designed to inoculate elite soldiers, sailors and airmen to torture, in the event of their capture, by an enemy that would violate the Geneva Conventions. Those service members are subjected to forced nudity, stress positions, hooding, slapping, sleep deprivation, sexual humiliation and, yes, in some cases, waterboarding.
In an article the other day, I described some of SERE's rocky history, and indicated that by testimony of Lt. Col. Baumgarten, Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA) for the Department of Defense, which administers SERE, he was approached by an official of the defense department for information on SERE techniques as early as December 2001. This places DoD interest in possibly reverse-engineering of SERE techniques prior to the January 9 memo by John Yoo providing legal cover to Bush administration assertions that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to detainees held in the new war in Afghanistan. In addition, it predates the January 25 memo by Alberto Gonzales, then a presidential counsel, approving the Yoo argument, and stating that when it came to interrogation of enemy prisoners, the Geneva conventions' "strict limitations on questioning" such prisoners was now obsolete.

In my opinion, and no one has been able to convince me otherwise (although I am no attorney), the query to Baumgarten in December 2001 may be sufficient evidence of war crimes, even by the twisted logic of the White House, who first wanted to torture, and then later dream up the legal justification for it. The only catch -- that no one catch them red-handed in the interim. I again encourage Senator Levin to release the documents that Lt. Col. Baumgarten says convinced him that he had been approached in December 2001. So far Levin and his committee have focused on the approach to SERE in July 2002. Why?

A Course in Torture

SERE training specialists arrived in Guantanamo in late December 2002. A copy of a SERE interrogation Standard Operating Procedure was circulated to camp officials. (All quotes from this and other documents can be found in the document release by SASC made coincident with last week's hearings.)

Most of this SERE SOP remains classified. The memo that accompanied it has been declassified, however:
Subj: GUIDELINES FOR EMPLOYING "SERE" MANAGEMENT TECHNIQUES DURING DETAINEE INTERROGATIONS....

The premise behind this is that the interrogation tactics used at U.S. military SERE schools are appropriate for use in real-world interrogations. These tactics and techniques are used at SERE school to "break" SERE detainees. The same tactics and techniques can by used to break real detainees during interrogation operations.
The document goes on to mandate SERE-related training for all instructors. The policy memo is approved by the Chief of Interrogation Control Element (ICE), Lt. Col. Ted Moss, Major Geoffrey Miller, Commanding General, Joint Task Force, Guantanamo, and a third colonel whose name I cannot read on the document as it is reproduced.

The SASC produced a small extract from the SERE SOP, dated December 18, 2002. It describes the use of "Degradation Tactics", including slaps to the shoulder, and stomach; something called an "Insult Slap"; and Stripping. In addition, it lists "Physical Debilitation Tactics", specifically "Stress Positions", including variations for kneeling, sitting, standing, something called "Head Rest Index Finger Position", and another one titled "Worship-the-Gods". Finally, the SOP commands "Demonstrate Omnipotence Tactics", via "Manhandling" and "Walling".

That would be all we know from government sources, if it weren't for an extraordinary memo by two SERE specialists written to the Officer in Charge at "FASOTRAGRULANT Det Burnswick". These two officers, John Rankin and Christopher Ross, say they were "directed to proceed to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba at the request of LtCol [sic] Moss, Commander of the Interrogation Control Unit." It was their "impression" they were to provide "the theory and application of... physical pressures utilized during our training" to Gitmo interrogators. Utilizing the original SERE SOP, a training plan was worked up. The SERE trainers focused on "resistance", as it was believed that some of the high-profile detainees had undergone their own kind of resistance training, "as evidenced by the Al Queda Training Manual". The memo continues:
On the morning of 31 Dec 02, Mr. Ross and I initiated training with an in-depth class on Biderman's Principles, and the theory and practical application of selected physical pressures, [unclear word, maybe "IAW"] our "Blue Book", to approximately 24 ICE personnel. This training was conducted in one of the newly constructed interrogation facilities located at Camp Delta. During this training it was stressed that the physical pressures are only a part of the overall conditioning process designed to establish and maintain an effective captive management program.
After complaining about security glitches at Guantanamo, and rental car availability ("Future trips should utilize Enterprise Rental"), the memo concludes:
Recommend that future trainers, if requested, be thoroughly prepared to discuss and explain Biderman's Principles and captive management techniques.
Biderman, Brainwashing, and U.S. Torture

Some readers may be familiar with Biderman's "Chart of Coercion", as it has been well-circulated on cult deprogrammer websites for years. The original is supposedly from a 1970's Amnesty International publication on torture. The version released by the SASC -- originally an enclosure to Moss and Rankin's memo discussed above -- is very blurry and difficult to read. But it is almost word for word identical to this version published on the web, and can profitably be compared together.

Albert Biderman was a social psychologist who worked with the government debriefing POWs from the Korean War. At the time there was a huge controversy because many of these POWs were said to be collaborators, and some had told their captors that the U.S. had bombed Korea and China with biological weapons, a definite war crime. The U.S. called it "brainwashing" and began a crash program trying to understand the nuts and bolts of so-called mind control. Biderman became one of the outstanding researchers in this effort. In the early 1960s, he edited with a colleague a collection of research papers by psychologists and psychiatrists encapsulating the subject and entitled it "The Manipulation of Human Behavior." (Also see this review of MHB.)

Biderman became one of the premier experts in interrogation, both of the rapport-building and coercive types. Much of the knowledge gleaned by he and his collaborators was encapsulated in the "Chart of Coercion", or what SERE calls "Coercive Management Techniques". What are these techniques?

1. Isolation: This deprives the prisoner of all social support and "ability to resist". While turning the prisoner upon his own resources, it "makes victim dependent upon interrogator" (quotes are from the SERE version). Furthermore, isolation can be complete, semi, or "group isolation".

2. Monopolisation of Perception: This means again "physical isolation. Darkness or bright light. Barren environment. Restricted movement. Monotonous food." The goal? To fixate the prisoner upon his "immediate predicament", the technique also "eliminates stimuli competing with those controlled by captor," frustrating all action "not consistent with compliance."

3. Induced Debilitation and Exhaustion: This is what it seems to be, i.e., a method to weaken a prisoners' "mental and physical ability to resist." Techniques include: "Semi-starvation. Exposure. Exploitation of wounds. Induced illness. Sleep deprivation. Prolonged constraint. Prolonged interrogation" and "over-exertion", among other practices (tortures!)

4. Threats: Which "cultivates anxiety and despair", including threats of death, non return, "endless interrogation and isolation", threats against family, and "mysterious changes of treatment".

5. Occasional indulgences: To provide positive motivation for compliance, it also has the effect of hindering "adjustment to deprivation."

6. Demonstrating "Omnipotence" and "Omniscience": The purpose of this is said to suggest to the prisoner the "futility of resistance". How is this done? By "demonstrating complete control over victim's fate". (And this, by the way, is a crucial way that the ban on habeas corpus for these prisoners, recently overturned by the Supreme Court, fed into the military's torture program, by demonstrating that there was no appeal to anyone.)

7. Degradation: This is where one finds the prevention of personal hygiene, the insults, taunts, "demeaning punishments" and "denial of privacy". The goal was to damage prisoner self esteem, making "capitulation" a lesser evil. It also "reduces the prisoner to 'animal level' concerns."

8. Enforcing Trivial Demands: Again the point is to develop compliance in the captive, and takes place through "enforcement of minute rules."

So there you have it, these are the "principles" the SERE instructors insisted future trainers for interrogators at Guantanamo (and since SERE instruction migrated to Iraq and Afghanistan as well, we can presume there as well) "be thoroughly prepared to discuss and explain".

If you aren't stunned by this point, you never will be. The hubris and ambition of the American imperial quest has reached it reductio ad absurdum in reducing those who oppose it to the "animal level", and making them objects of torture and omnipotent control. There are other aspects to this scandal that are worth reporting. For instance, Stephen Soldz has just written an excellent summary of the role of military psychologists and the American Psychological Association in all this.

My conclusion is only this: now that you've read this, what are you going to do about it? It's your society. Your leaders have proven impotent in stopping this activity, and the perpetrators have not been held accountable -- yet. Ask yourself, what will I do today, tomorrow, and the next day to stop this barbarity from eating up our society entirely, from destroying the entire social fabric.

A Final Correction and a Further Clarification

In my story the other day, Media & Gov't Torture Cover-up: Sen. Levin, Release the 12/01 SERE Docs, I wasn't sufficiently clear in my description about testimony from a 1960s Green Beret officer. I wrote:
Sergeant Donald W. Duncan, a former Green Beret who served in Vietnam, recipient of two Bronze Stars, the Legion of Merit, the Vietnamese Silver Star, the Army Air Medal, and sundry other decorations, testified at a "War Crimes" tribunal chaired by Bertrand Russell in the 1960s that SERE techniques had been taught to Special Forces interrogators for use in Vietnam....
From the Russell Copenhagen Tribunal testimony (pp.31-32) (bold emphasis added):
Duncan recounts an American instruction class for the Green Berets in "Counter-Measures to Hostile Interrogation" in which the techniques of hostile interrogation are presented in great detail but not any counter-measures, of which the instructor says there are none. A sergeant asks the instructor whether the only reason for teaching the class is for training in the use of the methods of interrogation (involving torture such as lowering of a prisoner's testicles into a jeweler's vise, mutilation, etc.). The instructor replies: "We can't tell you that, Sergeant Harrison. The Mothers of America wouldn't approve. Furthermore, we will deny that any such thing is taught or intended." D. DUNCAN, THE NEW LEGIONS 123-25 (Pocket Books ed. 1968). In his testimony before the Russell Tribunal, Duncan states that this dialogue is a word for word quote. RUSSELL TRIBUNAL, supra, at 463.
As a colleague kindly pointed out to me, the implication in my account is that SERE was involved in reverse-engineering their own techniques in order to teach torture to interrogators. In fact, Michael Otterman, in his book American Torture (where I first came across the Duncan story), writes:
...by the late 1950s US Army Special Forces had coopted coursework from SERE for more sinister purposes....

Sergeant Donald Duncan joined the Special Forces in 1959. At the time, Special Forces resistance training was held at Camp Mackall and was supplemented by classroom training at the Army's nearby Special Warfare School [SWS] at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. (pp. 39-40)
Otterman goes on to explain that Duncan was an interrogation instructor at the SWS. He also quotes from Duncan's Russell Committee testimony a more forceful description of how "counter-measure" instruction was used (p. 67 of AT):
The specific purpose for teaching this [at Fort Bragg] is so the student in turn, once he is put in another country, can teach these methods to what we refer to as an 'indigenous counterpart', somebody indigenous to the country. And he in turn then would become the interrogator... In Vietnam, of course, that would be the Vietnamese.
There are two important differences from the Duncan/Vietnam example and the current scandal over SERE and torture. One, the teaching of torture was done by instructors at Special Forces' Special Warfare School (although SERE techniques may also have been utilized there). Two, the ultimate recipients of the training were to be indigenous interrogators, or torturers. The current situation has SERE teaching their techniques to U.S. interrogators and personnel.

The main point remains, after all the distinctions are pulled away: the United States armed forces as a matter of policy have at various times utilized so-called counter-resistance techniques to be used by captured U.S. soldiers as a template for torture to be used on American enemy prisoners or political opponents. The situation with SERE is not new, but part of a military or national security culture that has lost its moral bearings and committed crimes for which they have never been held accountable. (This is not to downplay those portions of the military, as currently the military lawyers, who strenuously opposed this policy).

Originally posted at Invictus and The Public Record

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