Torture: What did they know, when did they know it?
It is inconceivable that Bush administration officials did not know the history of SERE, from which they drew torture tactics. By Malcolm Nance With the release of documents that reveal the origins of the legal authorization to use what the Bush administration called “enhanced interrogation techniques,” it has become patently clear that the U.S. government ...
It is inconceivable that Bush administration officials did not know the history of SERE, from which they drew torture tactics.
By Malcolm Nance
With the release of documents that reveal the origins of the legal authorization to use what the Bush administration called “enhanced interrogation techniques,” it has become patently clear that the U.S. government engaged in methods that amounted to torture.
The subjects of the legal tussle were high-value al Qaeda prisoners, including 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Zubaydah. To justify the use of these heavy-handed techniques, the CIA and the Bush administration proposed using the methods in service at the U.S. military’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) schools. SERE runs hundreds of “high risk of capture” pilots, Special Forces troops, scout/snipers, and intelligence operatives through a grueling course of surviving in the wild, evading capture, and enduring a tough, but structured, simulated captive environment.
As a former instructor at the Navy school in Coronado, Calif., I too was subjected to everything it had available when I underwent the process. But I knew what was coming. Before learning how to pick an edible plant or understanding why one is being slapped in the face, the student is given a highly detailed history of the SERE program.
SERE originated in the 1950s to raise the survivability of prisoners of war (POWs) after they died in droves during World War II and the Korean War. Soldiers back then were unprepared for a harsh Nazi, Japanese, or communist captivity and did not yet have the code of conduct that helped U.S. prisoners, such as Sen. John McCain, survive the Hanoi Hilton a decade later.
To help students steel themselves for captivity, SERE used a variety of “stress and duress” techniques. The military’s encyclopedic knowledge of these techniques was paid for in American blood because it was gleaned from former POWs tortured by totalitarian regimes. One technique, waterboarding, was a historically well-known torture. I saw the waterboarding device in Cambodia’s notorious Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh and did not see another until I was strapped down on an identical one at SERE. Waterboarding was administered as a “stress demonstrator” to show that an enemy could make one say anything. And one does.
Reporting in the New York Times this week, however, suggests that Bush administration officials, including the director of the CIA, claim to have been unaware of the origins of the SERE program and the history of the techniques involved.
If this is true, a whole myriad of CIA and Defense Department personnel need to be fired. It is virtually impossible for the administration not to know the origins of SERE methodology. It is the magnum opus of professional torture methods, drawn from the 230-year history of the American POW experience. SERE is a classified program, but every person informed of it is “read in” to the details of the program. Even the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency, which administers SERE, starts its PowerPoint presentation with a slide outlining the agency’s origins.
Former Bush officials are feigning collective ignorance in this regard. As sworn elected officials and appointees, they had an oath to uphold and protect the U.S. Constitution. In this, they failed miserably. One former CIA official quoted by the New York Times called it “a perfect storm of ignorance and enthusiasm.” If so, it was willful ignorance and unbridled enthusiasm to mimic tough-guy torture techniques popularized on the TV show 24, and certainly not anything grounded in the reality of using proper interrogation techniques.
Malcolm Nance is the director of the International Anti-Terrorism Center for Excellence in Hudson, New York.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
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