Thursday, April 8, 2010

Bradbury, OLC Ignored Damage Done by Waterboarding

Originally posted at Firedoglake

On Monday [April 5], I described the years-long controversy within the military services over the use of waterboarding in SERE training, which left the Navy SERE school in North Island, California the last remaining survival school to use the technique on its students. The executive authority for SERE, the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency, had argued for its elimination as as an unsafe technique with deleterious psychological and possibly physiological consequences upon trainees, causing them to be “psychologically defeated.” The North Island school ended use of waterboarding in November 2007.

In the May 10, 2005 “techniques” memorandum by Steven Bradbury to CIA Senior Deputy Counsel, John Rizzo, Bradbury mentioned the waterboarding issue at the SERE schools, in a footnote (H/T Marcy Wheeler). “We understand that the waterboard is currently used only in Navy SERE training,” Bradbury wrote. He explained that the CIA Inspector General report on the Agency’s interrogation program mentioned that “individuals with authoritative knowledge of the SERE program” believed that waterboarding had been excluded from most of the SERE schools “because of its dramatic effect on the students who were subjects.”

Despite the presence of this unexplained “dramatic effect,” Bradbury continued:

We understand that use of the waterboard was discontinued by the other services not because of any concerns about physical or mental harm, but because students were not successful at resisting the technique, and, as such, it was not considered to be a useful training technique.

Bradbury received his assurances from the CIA’s Office of Medical Services (OMS), who he quotes as saying “[w]hile SERE trainers believe that trainees are unable to maintain psychological resistance to the waterboard, our experience was otherwise.” OMS soothingly assures that “Some subjects can unquestionably withstand a large number of applications,” with no harm greater than a “strong aversion to the experience.” The testimony of the “SERE trainers” is blithely brushed aside, and no questions are asked about what it means to be “unable to maintain psychological resistance.”

Even more, Bradbury and OMS’s assurances don’t correspond with the evidence from JPRA internal documents, which describe the use of waterboarding as leaving students “psychologically defeated” and impaired in the ability to develop “psychological hardiness.” Furthermore, as a Truthout article last month notes, the discontinuance of waterboarding was not due to mere failure at resistance to the technique. They were finding measures of physiological harm.

The Navy SERE school in Brunswick, Maine, discontinued the use of waterboarding in its training curriculum after a SERE psychologist found via “empirical medical data … elevated levels of cortisol in the brain stem caused by stress levels incurred during water boarding.” Cortisol is a stress hormone released by the adrenal glands as part of the body’s fight-or-flight mechanisms. Excess cortisol can lead to chronic stress, impaired cognitive abilities, thyroid problems, suppressed immune functioning, high blood pressure, and other health problems.

The origins of misinformation about waterboarding go back to the original Yoo/Bybee memos in August 2002. Emptywheel has been following the story around the machinations surrounding the composition of these memos pretty closely (see here, and here, and here). In the memo to Rizzo on the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, John Yoo writes:

With respect to the waterboard, you have also orally informed us that the Navy continues to use it in training. You have informed us that your on-site psychologists, who have extensive experience with the use of the waterboard in Navy training, have not encountered any significant long-term mental health consequences from its use…. JPRA has likewise not reported any significant long-term mental health consequences from the use of the waterboard.

Yoo explains the cessation of waterboarding training as due to the fact “it was so successful as an interrogation technique,” and not because of any concerns over harm from its use. This is, we know now, plainly not the case. Is it any surprise that the Navy SERE psychologists clung to their use of waterboarding, and that Yoo and the CIA found a willing group of practitioners to give them the fairy tale story they desired? The use of anecdotal statements from biased participants does not add up to due diligence or reliance on experts.

In fact, no long-term study on the effects of waterboarding, or SERE techniques in general, has ever been made, or at least made public. If there were such a study, and its results backed the contentions of Yoo and the CIA, you can be sure we would have heard of it. Instead, we have the statements of JPRA professionals that the use of waterboarding in SERE training was risky, potentially dangerous, and produced a condition known as “learned helplessness.” My next article will expand on what the dangers of learned helplessness entail from a psychological and physiological standpoint.

Next: “Learned Helplessness” and the waterboard


rb said...

I'm looking forward to the next installment on learned helplessness. Seriously.

Re: elevated cortisol -- this causes all manner of degenerative disease. It screws up adrenal balance and insulin levels. Cortisol level must cycle, and they must be low in order for the body to rebuild biochemicals essential to living and fighting disease. When the body doesn't rebuild, it's further stressed. It's like a Chinese finger trap.

Thanks for the read.

Valtin said...

Thanks for the comment and info re cortisol.

rb said...

This book gives a good appreciation of how adrenal strain causes degenerative disease. It is a way to pick up the basic relationships between the major hormones in an afternoon. It doesn't really go into how cortisol cycles, but it talks at length about adrenal burnout and its consequences. Hypothyroid is also connected to adrenal burnout. The book stops short of explaining it all, but it provides an accurate and understandable background. It's written for a lay audience, so there isn't a lot of scientific detail. She also spends some time talking about how adrenal imbalance contrinutes to low serotonin.

If you want some other reading material, I can dig some up. I think that connecting the long term effects of torture to chronic adrenal imbalance is important in understand the long term effects of torture.

Search for Info/News on Torture

Google Custom Search
Add to Google ">View blog reactions

This site can contain copyrighted material, the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. I am making such material available in my effort to advance understanding of political, human rights, economic, democracy, scientific, and social justice issues, etc. I believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information go to: If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.