Guantanamo and the SERE schools

Soundtrack "In 2002, the training program, known as SERE, for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape, became a source of interrogation methods both for the C.I.A. and the military. In what critics describe as a remarkable case of historical amnesia, officials who drew on the SERE program appear to have been unaware that it had been created as a result of concern about false confessions by American prisoners.

Senator Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said after reviewing the 1957 article that “every American would be shocked” by the origin of the training document.

“What makes this document doubly stunning is that these were techniques to get false confessions,” Mr. Levin said. “People say we need intelligence, and we do. But we don’t need false intelligence.”

A Defense Department spokesman, Lt. Col Patrick Ryder, said he could not comment on the Guantánamo training chart. “I can’t speculate on previous decisions that may have been made prior to current D.O.D. policy on interrogations,” Colonel Ryder said. “I can tell you that current D.O.D. policy is clear — we treat all detainees humanely.”

Mr. Biderman’s 1957 article described “one form of torture” used by the Chinese as forcing American prisoners to stand “for exceedingly long periods,” sometimes in conditions of “extreme cold.” Such passive methods, he wrote, were more common than outright physical violence. Prolonged standing and exposure to cold have both been used by American military and C.I.A. interrogators against terrorist suspects. "  NY Times


I wrote some years ago in these pages that I thought the methods in use at Gitmo and other places sounded a lot like the resistance to interrogation training that had been done in the ’60s in the US armed forces.  The supposedly sophisticated methods of psychological manipulation then said to have been used against French POWs in Indochina and Americans in Korea inspired a lot of that kind of that training.

SERE training was intended to prepare people for the illegal bestialities that were expected to be inflected on American prisoners if they fell into the hands of the communist enemy.  The armed forces had been horrified at the number of "collaborators" who emerged among American prisoners in Korea.  This kind of training and the adoption of the "Code of Conduct"  were seen as specifics against a recurrence.  An exagerated fear of the "Manchurian Candidate" phenomenon was widespread.

It was clearly understood that such methods were to be expected of an enemy devoid of decency.  I experienced such training and it was no fun at all.

The methods of interrogation authorized and thought productive by US forces were very different from that.  They stressed what was essentially a process of seduction similar to that used in recruiting foreign agents.

The US armed forces have no peacetime mission to interrogate prisoners.  Discussion of methods in the context of peacetime military life is a completely abstract subject.

The national intelligence agencies debrief defectors from foreign countries of interest but this is not a hostile process.  The defectors want asylum and for that reason are normally eager to tell what they know.

Clearly, some sadist or group of sadists with a vivid imagination took advantage of the national trauma of 9/11 to use the old communist enemies’ methods as a model.

Whoever did that inflicted a grave injury and disgrace on the United States.  The culprits should be punished as an example to future generations of sadists.  pl

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24 Responses to Guantanamo and the SERE schools

  1. CJ says:

    As someone who went through the Air Force version of SERE training in 1984 (after the curriculum had been updated to reflect the Vietnam experience) I can’t tell you the sense of deja vu I had when the reports of interrogation techniques used by these characters started coming out. Everything they were using was what I had been trained to resist, only in more extreme form.
    When of the lessons I vividly remember is that torture was not very useful as a means of extracting intelligence information. The North Vietnamese quickly learned that the intell that American pilots had was only good for about 3 days and that beating the shit out of them did not usually make them more willing to talk. Instead, they found that the POWs were more useful for propaganda purposes than for intelligence.
    Since we don’t parade our prisoners on TV the way the North Vietnamese did theirs, the only explanation left for this administration’s fascination with torture is the feeling of power that it gives them.
    One mor point: Cheney and Rumsfeld were both functionaries in the Ford White House when the story of Frank Olson broke into the public consciousness. Some may remember that Olson was the Armys cientist who dove out a hotel window in New York in 1952 after a couple of the CIA’s MK Ultra operatives had slipped him some LSD without his knowledge. twenty five years later when the story broke, it was Cheney and Rumsfeld who tried to keep sitting on it. Some things never change.

  2. Cieran says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with your characterization of this program as a national disgrace.
    But I also noticed an obvious alternate interpretation for Levin’s assertion:
    “What makes this document doubly stunning is that these were techniques to get false confessions,” Mr. Levin said. “People say we need intelligence, and we do. But we don’t need false intelligence.”
    Given that “false intelligence” is an apt characterization of the Bush administration’s modus operandi towards communicating with the entire world, I can’t help but wonder if false confessions weren’t exactly what these neo-con-men were seeking.

  3. condfusedponderer says:

    Clearly, some sadist or group of sadists with a vivid imagination took advantage of the national trauma of 9/11 to use the old communist enemies’ methods as a model.
    Whoever did that inflicted a grave injury and disgrace on the United States. The culprits should be punished as an example to future generations of sadists. pl

    Considering that Bush personally objected to Al Qaeda member Abu Zubaydah prisoner receiving pain medication, and what Rumsfeld said on stress positions one doesn’t really need to search for the sadists.

    The methods of interrogation authorized and thought productive by US forces were very different from that. They stressed what was essentially a process of seduction similar to that used in recruiting foreign agents.

    This is about revenge and punishment: These terrorists will get no mercy, we get tough, the gloves are off … etc. pp.
    The entire torture debate in the US suffers from that basic malady, that people fail to differentiate between punishment and interrogation.
    After interrogation there is plenty of time for punishment if need be – when he’s finished talking give the guy a proper trial in a military commission (not that joke Bush set up) and then set him free, or lock him up or put him to a wall – whatever fits.
    For the proponents of torture the question is decided on whether the recipients of such treatment are felt to deserve it and whether it could potentially save lives. That cost-benefit sweeps all that aside. Needless to say that every information in war can potentially save lives, which means torture is under a worst case oriented cost benefit analysis always ‘worth it’.
    And suspicion of being a terrorist is also sufficient, never mind that suspects may be innocent (suggesting a reasoning along the line ‘better I am safe and he is sorry‘).
    The administration sure did their best to label everyone at Guantanamo as terrorists, the worst of the worst. After 9/11 the apparent gut reaction toward what to do with anyone accused of terrorism was to say that they do deserve ‘it’, and that that’s justification enough.
    Such views are still relatively widespread if recent polls are any indication, and it will remain like that for a while. Torture, as the GOP presidential primaries have suggested have the potential to become a wedge issue in US elections. GOP ‘strategists’ certainly won’t shy away from using it.

  4. b says:

    For starters try these:

    The fingerprints of the most senior lawyers in the administration were all over the design and implementation of the abusive interrogation policies. Addington, Bybee, Gonzales, Haynes, and Yoo became, in effect, a torture team of lawyers, freeing the administration from the constraints of all international rules prohibiting abuse.

    On September 25, as the process of elaborating new interrogation techniques reached a critical point, a delegation of the administration’s most senior lawyers arrived at Guantánamo. The group included the president’s lawyer, Alberto Gonzales, who had by then received the Yoo-Bybee Memo; Vice President Cheney’s lawyer, David Addington, who had contributed to the writing of that memo; the C.I.A.’s John Rizzo, who had asked for a Justice Department sign-off on individual techniques, including waterboarding, and received the second (and still secret) Yoo-Bybee Memo; and Jim Haynes, Rumsfeld’s counsel. They were all well aware of al-Qahtani. “They wanted to know what we were doing to get to this guy,” Dunlavey told me, “and Addington was interested in how we were managing it.” I asked what they had to say. “They brought ideas with them which had been given from sources in D.C.,” Dunlavey said. “They came down to observe and talk.” Throughout this whole period, Dunlavey went on, Rumsfeld was “directly and regularly involved.”

    The Green Light

  5. So we agree that the perpetrators need punishment, for the good of the Republic.
    Now what?
    Impeachment is “off the table” and has been.
    Do we just hope that after Jan. 2009, the Europeans catch some of our miscreants and put them on trial for us, because we don’t seem to have the political will to try them under our own laws?
    What can I do as a voter and a lover of freedom? I care about my country. I want to see justice done. What can I do? Give more money to the ACLU? That seems awfully indirect.
    I want justice!

  6. zanzibar says:

    “Whoever did that inflicted a grave injury and disgrace on the United States. The culprits should be punished as an example to future generations of sadists. pl”
    Yes, indeed! But will the collaborators in Congress and the corporate media and the DOJ even allow the convening of a grand jury or Military Tribunal? Will a President McCain or Obama prosecute? Contemporary history shows that those who hold the highest offices in our country are the law. Penalty for violating the Laws and Customs of War are for other people.
    In United States of America v. Hideji Nakamura, Yukio Asano, Seitara Hata, and Takeo Kita (U.S. Military Commission, Yokohama, 1-28 May, 1947. NARA Records, NND 735027 RG 153, Entry 143 Box 1025):
    The charge and specifications against Hata were:
    * Charge: That the following member of the Imperial Japanese Army with his then known title: Seitaro Hata, Surgeon First Lieutenant, at the times and places set forth in the specifications hereto attached, and during a time of war between the United States of America and its Allies and Dependencies, and Japan, did violate the Laws and Customs of War.
    * Specification 3. That in or about July or August, 1943, at Fukoka Prisoner of War Branch Camp Number Three, Fukuoka ken, Kyushu, Japan, the accused Seitaro Hata, did willfully and unlawfully, brutally mistreat and torture Morris O. Killough, an American Prisoner of War, by beating and kicking him; by fastening him on a stretcher and pouring water up his nostrils.
    * Specification 5. That on or about 15 May, 1944, at Fukoka Prisoner of War Branch Camp Number Three, Fukuoka ken, Kyushu, Japan, the accused Seitaro Hata, did, willfully and unlawfully, brutally mistreat and torture Thomas B. Armitage, William O Cash and Munroe Dave Woodall, American Prisoners of War by beating and kicking them; by forcing water into their mouths and noses; and by pressing lighted cigarettes against their bodies.
    1st Lt Seitero Hata was convicted and sentenced to 25 years hard labor.

  7. American Interrogators Trained in Methods Used by Chinese During Korean War to Elicit False Confessions from Americans

    by Damozel | It seems that under the Bush Administration, Chinese interrogation methods designed to elicit false confessions became the basis for the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo (NYT). Back in the day, we used to consider such techniques tortu…

  8. steve says:

    Anyone read the MNF-I commander guide? I loved the part where it said “Live Our Values.” Our politicians are hacks. TG there are still professionals in our armed forces.

  9. lina says:

    I’m starting to think we might need a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (a la South Africa) following the Bush administration.

  10. Cujo359 says:

    Whoever did that inflicted a grave injury and disgrace on the United States. The culprits should be punished as an example to future generations of sadists.
    I agree, but I’m not holding my breath. Our politicians seem to think that the best thing is for all this to go away quietly. Whether that’s because they’re fools, cowards, or complicit is the only thing that can be a serious subject of debate at this point.

  11. Andy says:

    The NYT story adds a little bit of information to what we’ve already known for two years.
    As someone who’s worked with and in the SERE community in the past, I’m still shocked that anyone could think what is taught in SERE school has any efficacy for intelligence purposes or is in any way consistent with American values.

  12. linda says:

    i actually suggested to colleagues a couple of years ago that as a sign of contrition to the international community, this country should undergo some type of salvadoran truth commission. and to illustrate that this is a country that abides by the rule of law.
    alas, i don’t expect any such thing to happen. the degradation is too great; and the desire for justice too weak.

  13. John Howley says:

    Ahmed Rashid, in his book Descent into Chaos, makes the following point.
    The US and NATO have struggled for seven years to foster a stable and legitimate regime in Kabul. COIN would suggest that this is THE central mission.
    Part of this effort involves creating a functioning judiciary and police to extend security across the country and win the confidence of the civilian population.
    At the same time, the US is conducting disappeances, renditions, torture, etc., on Afghan soil.
    Talk about shooting oneself in the foot (if not the head).

  14. Tom says:

    As someone who has been through SERE training just barely a month ago, I’m a bit boggled by the mindset that our country is served by these interrogation methods.
    From what I learned, extended detention and brutal treatment is only useful for extracting false confessions or propaganda material, not for acquiring accurate information, which grows rapidly dated since the moment of capture.
    Which begs the question, what are we wasting our time, resources and reputation on? Our hands are getting dirty and we’re not getting anything useful out of it.
    Those responsible will not be held accountable. The belief is that going after such people will only tarnish our nation’s honor…especially if those most visibly affected by these fruitless and abhorrent policies are non US nationals.
    We’ve never been quick to purge ourselves for what appears to be the sake of others. Which is a shame in this case, because it’s our nation’s integrity at stake.

  15. VietnamVet says:

    Literature, Science and History aside, each new generation has to learn the same lessons all over again; except the Bush White House never learned any thing and admits no error. They are the freaky Young Republicans, scorned and humiliated, who fought back by believing their own propaganda. They hate knowledge. They cannot place themselves in their enemy’s boots. All they can do is market their focus group fantasies of a Strong Dollar, Victory in Iraq, and the Sanctity of Life
    Reality ultimately ends it all.

  16. Really PL looking backwards is not the way to successfully move forward. Just have the US join the ICC and refer all appropriate parties to it that were involved in adoption, use and review of US interrogation policies after 9/11. Simple and certainly should be no recrimination afterwards. Just the healthy cleanings equivalent to the Nuremburg trials and think of what impact it would have on US policy, the rule of law, and the view of US in the world. In fact, let’s just get both Senator McCain and Obama to promise participation in the ICC retrocatively to 9/11/01. This is not a facetious post. And by the way the administration of Ronald Reagan conducted in depth analysis of Article 3 of the Geneva Convention, then recently modified, and its application to terrorists captured by police or armed services. I wonder what happened to that highly classified work. Buried perhaps by those who knew of its existence in DOJ. Good subject for hearing under oath. Even an understaffed underfunded FEMA OGC was asked for its view on Artilce 3 and gave the response beyond its competence, which it clearly was. Perhaps the former DOJ ranking officials from that time still alive could give insight.

  17. Spider Rider says:

    A Pentagon driven by private fiduciary concerns is not an intelligent, effective Pentagon.
    I firmly believe the first step toward restoration of the rule of law, the intelligent ethic, is a thorough investigation into financial defense practices, who is getting what, and why.
    When those willing to compromise the American Constitution so easily are removed, and jailed, replaced by those who understand their responsibilities and oaths, (those who insist on working with only an expectation of reasonable and fair compensation), we will again see a correction of course for the United States.

  18. Cromwell says:

    Leila Abu-Saba asked :
    Do we just hope that after Jan. 2009, the Europeans catch some of our miscreants and put them on trial for us, because we don’t seem to have the political will to try them under our own laws?
    You might want to read this:
    Travel Advisory
    In the past two years, I have spoken with two investigating magistrates in two different European nations, both pro-Iraq war NATO allies. Both were assembling war crimes charges against a small group of Bush administration officials. “You can rest assured that no charges will be brought before January 20, 2009,” one told me. And after that? “It depends. We don’t expect extradition. But if one of the targets lands on our territory or on the territory of one of our cooperating jurisdictions, then we’ll be prepared to act.”
    Viewed in this light, the Bush Administration figures involved in the formation of torture policy face no immediate threat of prosecution for war crimes. But Colin Powell’s chief of staff, Colonel Larry Wilkerson, nails it: “Haynes, Feith, Yoo, Bybee, Gonzales and–at the apex–Addington, should never travel outside the U.S., except perhaps to Saudi Arabia and Israel. They broke the law; they violated their professional ethical code. In the future, some government may build the case necessary to prosecute them in a foreign court, or in an international court.” Augusto Pinochet made a trip to London, and his life was never the same afterwards.
    The Review has argued for some time that instead of pursuing impeachment, congressional Democrats should compile a comprehensive list of war crimes and other criminality on the part of the Bush administration that would be available to any prosecutor or any citizen seeking civil damages. Horton, a law professor, seems to have overlooked the effect a plethora of such actions throughout the country would have on the perps, regardless of the eventual legal outcome.

  19. McGee says:

    It’s obvious that all of the ex-military blogging here who have experienced SERE-type training knew from the outset that what was being condoned/allowed as effective interrogation technique was in fact intended to produce no actionable intelligence, just what the interrogators or their superiors wanted to hear.
    I’d also hazard a reasonably informed guess that nothing substantive will ever be done about it.
    Makes for a really lousy 4th of July message. Sorry….

  20. HenryFTP says:

    January 20, 2009 is less than 7 months hence. There is a perfectly valid criminal statute that is applicable here:—-000-.html
    It applies to “any national of the United States” who has committed a violation of the Geneva Conventions. There is no “I got a legal memo from John Yoo” exception, or indeed a “I followed orders” exception. There is no exception for former Vice Presidents or indeed Presidents, or any of their advisers. There is no “executive privilege”, only the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination.
    It would dishonorable to permit other countries to prosecute war crimes when there is no doubt that we have the jurisdiction to prosecute these cases ourselves. We should all be in no doubt that if we do not take responsibility for crimes committed in our name, we will be held collectively accountable for those crimes.

  21. Patrick Lang says:

    I suppose that is your MOS? That would surprise me. I never met an SF soldier before who was in favor of torture, much less a medic.
    Early in my Army career I was a trainee in one SERE school belonging to USAFSO in Panama (that was primarily for air crews) and then was an instructor in the one that the 8th Group ran at Fort Sherman in the Canal Zone for SF people brought in from the states for the experience.
    You will have to enlighten me as to what you mean by “level” in connestion with a SERE school.

  22. Spider Rider says:

    Torture of any sort is contraindicated, for many reasons, mostly, it is ALWAYS indicative of internal chaos, a loss of control on the part of the practitioners, fostering resistance and destabilization.
    It’s fatal cancer to any social system it infects.
    Excluding torture is simply a part of sound, successful policy.
    I’m sure many in intelligence could enlighten us as to why the US should never use torture, and why it’s introduction is used to psychologically destabilize governments who use it.
    Neocons world wide fail, or seem unable, to understand this higher abstract, perhaps victims of their own intellectual limitations.
    And I say this only because leaders of the free world should be better than this, should be smarter than their enemies. In this case, they’re not.

  23. M. Morris says:

    One thing that I feel needs saying is that it is very understandable and satisfying to find the culprits and punish individual perpetrators. However, what is clear from a number of established psychology experiments is that it’s possible to turn about 90% of people in any given situation into torturers, given setting, encouragement, a lifting of responsibility, and the dehumanization of the subject. But the real question is, what are the mechanisms in a society that would cause us to even consider these tactics as legitimate? How is it possible to claim the moral high ground if we ever, ever indulge in it.
    There will always be torture in the shadows of any conflict. However, to bring the practice legitimacy by bringing it into the light by giving it pseudo technical names is obscene.

  24. Pat Lang says:


    Oh bullshit. I got the full treatment in in SF teaching to air crews how to act like men.

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