Sunday, September 28, 2008

A Colonel Takes on the Torturers: More on SERE Torture Details

At the center of the bottom of the lowest circle of hell, one finds the souls abandoned to torture. They are placed so far from heaven and earth because they are totally forgotten. The witnessing of their torture is almost unnoticed, trivial, when matched against the "great" issues of the day.

And so it was that in a week of elections, economic meltdowns, and other shenanigans, a lonely U.S. Senator sat alone in the hearing room of his own committee and listened to an Air Force instructor and sometime historian, Col. Steven Kleinman, tell his fantastic tale of witnessing the migration of SERE-style torture to Iraq. Kleinman's testimony belies years of excuses from the government that claims Abu Ghraib's "excesses" were merely the work of a "few bad apples," or "behavioral drift" at worst.

Joby Warrick at the Washington Post told the story in his article, "Air Force Instructor Details Harsh Interrogations."
In dramatic testimony before a Senate panel yesterday... [Kleinman] gave a rare account of how the Pentagon adapted an Air Force training program to squeeze information from captured Iraqis.

What Kleinman witnessed in Baghdad in September 2003 prompted him to order a stop to three interrogations, and to warn his superiors that the military's interrogation practices were abusive and, in his opinion, illegal.

"I told the task force commander that the methods were unlawful and were in violation of the Geneva Conventions," he told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Senator Carl Levin's Committee has already established that techniques from the Defense Department's Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape (SERE) program had been reverse-engineered by military psychologists into an "exploitation" or torture program of purported interrogation techniques. These techniques -- stress position, sleep deprivation, forced nudity, beatings, and more -- were gathered secondary to a Cold War propaganda program regarding "brainwashing" by the Soviets and Chinese, which programmatic elements were debunked by the government's own researchers. But never mind, the torture inoculation program continued for decades.

In 2003, Col. Kleinman, a long-time intelligence officer, was working with the Air Force Combat Interrogation Course and was DOD Senior Intelligence Officer for Special Survival Training. As of 2006, he was Reserve Senior Intelligence Officer and Mobilization Augmentee to the Director, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance, HQ Air Force Special Operations Command. He is also an independent contractor for the MITRE Corporation, which works on "scientific" ways to "educe information" from prisoners.

The Colonel Says No to Torture

According to an AP report:
The special forces task force asked Kleinman's team to teach them the interrogation methods used in the SERE course. Kleinman refused. He was overruled by the task force's lawyers.

They then demanded that Kleinman's team demonstrate the techniques on an Iraqi prisoner. Kleinman again refused and again was overruled, according to testimony from retired Air Force Col. John Moulton II, Kleinman's commander at the time as the head of the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency.

The interrogation went forward. Kleinman stopped it. He and his team subsequently were sent home by the task force, according to Moulton.
According to the Washington Post article, Kleinman "was shocked in 2003 to see the same harsh methods used haphazardly on Iraqis in a U.S. prison camp." The colonel said he witnessed detainees being slapped repeatedly, subjected to sleep deprivation, painful stress positions, and stripped naked.

Col. Kleinman's protests to his superiors went unheeded. They agreed the "techniques" violated Geneva, but by then the government already had in place cover-your-ass legal memos citing the abuse of detainees as "legal" because they were "unlawful enemy combatants."

I commend Col. Kleinman for coming forward to testify, and for his actions protesting the torture of prisoners. However, I wish someone had asked him whether, as military trainer for JPRA, he or Moulton had knowledge of DoD's approach to JPRA/SERE in December 2001 about ways to utilize SERE's "exploitation" techniques in the interrogation of prisoners in Afghanistan. (I also wish someone had asked if contracting interrogators, such as those from CACI or Titan, had any contact with the SERE instructors.)

The timeline is of some importance, because it would prove criminal malfeasance by the administration in abusing prisoners prior to any determination (not made by them until February 2002) that such prisoners were "unlawful enemy combatants," and therefore a clear violation of international and domestic war crimes laws.

Kleinman's Revisionist History

While praising Col. Kleinman's stance in Iraq, I take exception to his description of the origins of SERE techniques. From the WP article:
Kleinman said the Air Force's training program was distorted into an offensive program. He noted that the harsh techniques were adapted from torture methods used by Chinese communists, and were never regarded as useful in eliciting intelligence. Instead, they break a prisoner psychologically and make him eager to say anything to stop the pain.
I have painstakingly documented elsewhere statements by U.S. researchers at the time (1950s) that Soviet and Chinese interrogation techniques were nothing unusual, and SERE techniques didn't necessarily derive from them. U.S. researcher Albert Biderman explained, in a 1957 essay entitled "Communist Attempts to Elicit False Confessions from Air Force Prisoners of War." Regarding the origin of communist interrogation methods, Biderman and his colleagues, working for the Air Force, concluded (emphases added):
It is that the finding of our studies which should be greeted as most new and spectacular is the finding that essentially there was nothing new or spectacular about the events we studied. We found, as did other studies such as those of Hinkle and Wolff, that human behavior could be manipulated within a certain range by controlled environments. We found that the Chinese Communists used methods of coercing behavior from our men in their hands which Communists of other countries had employed for decades and which police and inquisitors had employed for centuries....

It should be understood that only a few of the Air Force personnel who encountered efforts to elicit false confessions in Korea were subjected to really full dress, all-out attempts to make them behave in the manner I have sketched. The time between capture and repatriation for many was too short, and, presumably, the trained interrogators available to the Communists too few, to permit this.
While the origin of inhumane treatment may be a marginal issue for most, it is important to understand because discussion and utilization of modern torture techniques by the United States has, since its inception, been linked to disinformation by the government. In the case of the 1950s, the "brainwashing" scare, regarding POWs in the Korean War, was linked to a massive cover-up of the use of biological weapons by the United States in that conflict. See my article covering this aspect of the story, posted last July.

Kleinman's historical bias surfaced, as well, in an essay published in an essay on the CIA's KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation Manual he wrote in 2006 for the Intelligence Science Board's report, "Educing Information." In it, he makes, for a historian, a remarkable statement:
The KUBARK manual offers unique and exceptional insights into the complex challenges of educing information from a resistant source through noncoercive means. While it addresses the use of coercive methods, it also describes how those methods may prove ultimately counterproductive. Although criticized for its discussion of coercion, the KUBARK manual does not portray coercive methods as a necessary — or even viable — means of effectively educing information. [p. 133]
Not necessary? The CIA manual expends twenty percent of its exposition upon coercive interrogation techniques. Not viable? Here's what the manual has to say about the "counterproductive" methods of torture:
Psychologists and others who write about physical or psychological duress frequently object that under sufficient pressure subjects usually yield but that their ability to recall and communicate information accurately is as impaired as the will to resist. This pragmatic objection has somewhat the same validity for a counterintelligence interrogation as for any other. But there is one significant difference. Confession is a necessary prelude to the CI interrogation of a hitherto unresponsive or concealing source.
Col. Kleinman stubbornly maintains that torture doesn't work, that torture, as he put it in an interesting interview, is poor at gaining operational information, and "largely counterproductive in that... [it] stiffen[s] the resolve of detainees under questioning and undermine[s] the stature of the U.S. on the world stage." Of course, Kleinman is correct, in so far as it goes.

But he seems to misunderstand the purpose of torture on a larger, political, military-operational scale. He misunderstands the use of torture to cow the populace, an important component of counterinsurgency work. He minimizes the opinion of many of his colleagues over the decades who in fact approved of coercive methodology. He would do well to study the techniques of Edward Lansdale, applied in the Philippines and Vietnam over a 20 year period, as described in John Prados's recent book, Safe for Democracy: The Secret Wars of the CIA. Like Kleinman, Lansdale was an Air Force officer. (He was also a CIA officer.)

I am in agreement with Col. Kleinman (it goes without saying) that torture is morally wrong, illegal, and should never be used. But I wonder how this military intelligence officer could work so long for special forces, intelligence agencies, and the military, and not understand the coercive nature of U.S. foreign and military policy in general. Perhaps Col. Kleinman could take on, as another project, a study of the use of torture by the U.S. in Vietnam, either directly, or in supervision of their Vietnamese allies. (He could title the paper, "Barriers to Success: Critical Challenges in Understanding the Current and Long-Standing Educing Information Paradigm.")

How SERE Took Over

For me, the picture is getting quite clear. When Bush initiated his "war on terror" in 2001, it consisted in sending in special operations forces into Afghanistan. This small scale kind of intervention on the ground was congruent with Rumsfeld's go-small kind of military. But special operations combat teams, while peppered with CIA personnel, like the ill-fated Johnny Spann, did not have the expertise in interrogating large groups of prisoners. There was a CIA program of psychological torture, exemplified by sensory deprivation, isolation, and the physical weakening or debility of the body (possibly through drugs), all meant to induce fear, psychological dependency and a weakened will in a prisoner. The program had been constructed by psychologists and psychiatrists as one outcome of the CIA's notorious MK-ULTRA program. It was codified in the CIA's KUBARK manual.

But the Special Ops teams in Afghanistan either didn't know KUBARK, or didn't have time to construct the proper environment for that kind of treatment. So they turned to the SERE program, who, as recent documents have made clear, aggressively courted the military for the assignment of reverse-engineering SERE and teaching it as coercive interrogation (i.e., torture). The Department of Defense and the White House, in a panic after 9/11, and staffed by incompetents and careerists with little sense of history or legal process, pushed the SERE-related torture, and then had their attorneys write memos to cover themselves legally after the fact.

The SERE-style techniques took off, though there was protest from interrogation professionals, like Kleinman, who well understood the counterproductive nature of that kind of treatment. Only later, as the CIA began to establish control over the "war on terror," and built a network of secret black prisons, did the SERE techniques recede somewhat into the background. A parallel process occurred at Guantanamo. The CIA utilized the worst of the SERE techniques, such as waterboarding, and propagated wide-scale knowledge of their use, mainly to instill fear of such treatment in prisoners, knowing full-well that induction of fear is a far more "effective" technique than physical brutality itself. At Guantanamo, a KUBARK-style prison routine was implemented, based upon isolation, psychological derangement, and the inculcation of dependency.

The Historical Meaning of Torture

Facts don't fall out of the sky. They are gathered based upon hypotheses, and if you are a historian or a social critic, with some narrative in mind. In a stepwise process of induction and deduction, one tries to determine what has actually occurred. The use of torture by the United States can only be understood as part of a decades long official program, involving well-funded covert study by the military and the academic establishment -- primarily physicians, psychiatrists, and psychologists -- in addition to the implementation of this program in a number of operational theaters, including Vietnam, Central and South America, Afghanistan, and the Middle East (among others).

The use of torture is closely tied to U.S. foreign policy goals. It is good to see the U.S. Senate try to take on the Pentagon and executive branch generally over this uncivil, criminal activity. Military critics, like Kleinman, or psychologist Michael Gelles, are to be commended for standing up against tremendous internal pressures within the organizations to which they belong. I also salute the courageous military attorneys working for little recompense and against tremendous odds to defend the charges made against the pariah-prisoners at Guantanamo, held without recourse to basic human rights.

I would hope all critics would agree that something as basic as stopping or banning torture involves both operational and political changes of a profound nature. One cannot happen without the other. And neither will happen, as the path of these investigations and hearings makes clear, without significant political, and perhaps, social struggle.

Also posted at Never In Our Names


drivenwide said...

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.
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Trudy Bond said...

Thanks for this summary and analysis Jeff - Trudy

p.s. loved the robert johnson song.

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