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How the Pentagon Turned an Interrogation Resistance Program into a Blueprint for Torture

At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing this week, answers about the Bush administration's "enhanced interrogations" finally came to light.
 
 
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In August 2004, a Defense Dept. panel convened to investigate detainee abuse after the Abu Ghraib scandal issued its much-anticipated report. Interrogation techniques designed for use at Guantánamo Bay, which President George W. Bush had decreed outside the scope of the Geneva Conventions, had "migrated" to Iraq, which Bush recognized was under Geneva, concluded panel chairman James Schlesinger, a former defense secretary. Schlesinger's panel, however, did not explain which officials ordered the abusive techniques to transfer across continents -- or how and why they became Pentagon policy in the first place.

(On Wednesday) the Senate Armed Services Committee answered those questions. In a marathon hearing spanning eight hours and three separate panels, the committee revealed, in painstaking detail, how senior Pentagon officials transformed a program for Special Forces troops to resist torture -- known as Survival Evasion Resistance Escape, or SERE -- into a blueprint for torturing terrorism detainees.

The committee, chaired by Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), released numerous classified documents from the crucial period of mid-2002 to early 2003, when the policies of abuse took shape inside the Defense Dept. "Senior officials in the United States government sought information on aggressive techniques, twisted the law to create the appearance of their legality and authorized their use against detainees," Levin said. "In the process, they damaged our ability to collect intelligence that could save lives."

The SERE program -- first introduced to many by a 2005 article by the New Yorker 's Jane Mayer -- is not an interrogation program. Nor is it an intelligence-collection program. Instead, it's an obscure program across the different military services' special-forces wings that teaches troops how to withstand torture if captured. Instructors subject students -- under the rigorous watch of psychologists and physicians -- to various torture techniques, including waterboarding, prolonged stress positions, sleep deprivation and sensory manipulation. Waterboarding "is an overwhelming experience that induces horror, triggers a frantic survival instinct," Malcolm Nance, a former Navy SERE instructor who was himself waterboarded, testified to Congress in November. "As the event unfolded, I was fully conscious of what was happening: I was being tortured."

On July 25, 2002, the Defense agency that oversees the SERE program, known as the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency, or JPRA, was contacted by a representative of Pentagon General Counsel William Haynes for information about SERE practices for the "exploitation process" -- that is, getting detainees to cooperate with their interrogators. The next day, JPRA's chief of staff, Air Force Lt. Col. Daniel Baumgartner, sent Haynes a lengthy memorandum explaining how the program worked.

Before the Senate panel, Baumgartner said he did not realize that Haynes wanted to use SERE techniques on enemy combatants. "I had no idea how it would be used," he testified. "When tasked by my higher headquarters … I can't really turn around and tell the flag officers and the senior executive service people no."

Haynes, who retired from the Pentagon in April, after his nomination to the federal judiciary foundered, pled ignorance. "No, sir, I don't remember it at the time," Haynes said when asked if he had received Baumgartner's memorandum. "But I saw it a long time ago … it's possible I saw it at the time."

Pressed by Levin on how he could not have seen a memorandum concerning terrorism detentions and interrogations, Haynes replied, "the recipient is the Office of the Secretary of Defense General Counsel, which [was] not my precise title."

Baumgartner's memorandum was not the last time SERE techniques were introduced into the interrogation bloodstream. On the week of Sept. 16, 2002, JPRA officials invited a contingent of senior Guantánamo-based officers to a briefing session at Ft. Bragg, N.C. Haynes and his legal counterparts at the Central Intelligence Agency, Justice Dept. and the Vice President's office visited Guantánamo the following week for an update on interrogations. The minutes of that meeting record that the commander of the detention facility "did take Mr. Haynes and a few others aside for private conversations."

Just the week after that, a senior CIA lawyer, Jonathan Fredman, instructed Guantánamo officers on various SERE-pedigreed torture methods, including waterboarding. "If the detainee dies," Fredman said, "you're doing it wrong." In response, the chief Guantánamo Bay attorney, Lt. Col. Diane Beaver, said, "We will need documentation to protect us."

It would be a fateful decision. On Oct. 11, 2002, Beaver's boss, Maj. Gen. Michael Dunleavy, the commander of Guantánamo's detention center, sent a request to his boss, Southern Command chief James Hill, for harsher, SERE-derived interrogation techniques. Beaver attached to that request a certification that "the proposed strategies do not violate applicable federal law."

Beaver testified (Wednesday) for the first time since Haynes declassified her guidance in mid-2004. She said she intended for the techniques to be used under supervised and restricted circumstances. It turned out that not a single other military lawyer submitted written guidance in support of the SERE-derived techniques. "In hindsight," Beaver told the Senate panel, "I can only conclude that others chose not to write on this issue in order not to be linked to it. For me, that was not an option."

The result of Haynes' efforts were to transform "stress positions" -- forcing someone into uncomfortable contortions for hours on end -- from something U.S. special forces had to withstand to something U.S. interrogators would place on Guantánamo inmates like Mohamed al-Qatani, also known as Guantánamo Detainee 063. Qatani was at one point believed to be the intended 20th 9/11 hijacker, but last month the Pentagon unceremoniously dropped the charges against him.

Nor did the SERE techniques remain only at Guantánamo Bay. In the summer of 2003, the new Guantánamo detentions and interrogations commander, Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, visited Iraq at the behest of Rumsfeld intelligence deputy Steve Cambone to "Gitmo-ize" detention operations there. It was revealed (Wednesday) that Beaver accompanied Miller on the trip.

The wages of this turn to what Vice President Dick Cheney once euphemistically described as "the dark side" were made clear in March. A deputy to Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, briefed reporters on an emerging profile of recruits to the terrorist organization Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) that his command had compiled from interviews with AQI detainees. In many cases, the recruits were convinced to join the terrorist group after being shown images of abuse emerging from Abu Ghraib or Guantánamo Bay.

Near the conclusion of the hearing, Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I) glowered at Haynes, frustrated at the former Pentagon official's faulty memory. Reed said that Haynes, Rumsfeld and Bush had deprived U.S. troops of clear guidance for legal interrogations, exposing them to potential prosecution in the U.S. -- and likely torture if captured by enemies who no longer have reason to believe that their own soldiers won't be tortured in U.S. custody. "You did a disservice to the soldiers of this nation," Reed told Haynes.

Spencer Ackerman is senior fellow at The Washington Independent . He covers national security and foreign policy.