Sunday, May 20, 2007

Did Gonzales Skip Out on SERE/Torture Training?

Also posted at NION

Bush Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is known to have served in the U.S. Air Force. Multiple sources describe his transfer to the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, where he spent two years, 1975-1977. According to the Wikipedia entry on the Academy, in those days SERE training was mandatory for all cadets between their 3rd and 4th years. But Gonzales never made it to his third year, per Wikipedia's anonymous author(s):

Prior to beginning his third year at the academy, which would have caused him to incur a further service obligation, he transferred to Rice University (Houston, Texas), where he was a member of Lovett College and earned a bachelor's degree in political science in 1979. He then earned a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree from Harvard Law School in 1982. [Emphasis mine]

Now the further service obligation was probably another sign up, as he had already been in the Air Force four years, spending the first two years in Alaska as an enlisted man. But could the "further obligation" have been attending SERE training, known to be horribly onerous?

For those not familiar with SERE, the acronymn stands for Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape. A program that started with the Air Force, and had its roots in resistance to capture programs in the Cold War, it spread to the other services over the years.

One area of concentration in SERE's curriculum is resistance to interrogation, and is said to include teaching of and experience of the following:

  • extreme temperatures
  • waterboarding - being tied to a board with the feet higher than the head and having water poured into the nose
  • noise stress - playing very loud and dissonant music and sound effects. Recordings have been reported to include babies wailing inconsolably, cats meowing, and irritating music (including a record by Yoko Ono)
  • sexual embarrassment
  • religious dilemma - being given the choice of either seeing a religious book desecrated or revealing secrets to interrogators.
  • flag desecration
  • prolonged cramped or restrictive confinement
  • sleep deprivation
  • starvation
  • mock execution
  • overcoming food aversion (finding nutrition from alternate sources which might include insects, roadkill, dumpsters)
  • height/water/enclosed spaces
  • physical beating
  • "stress inoculation"
  • According to a document discovered by Mark Benjamin of Salon in a ACLU cache of released government documents:

    A March 22, 2005, sworn statement by the former chief of the Interrogation Control Element at Guantánamo said instructors from SERE also taught their methods to interrogators of the prisoners in Cuba.

    "When I arrived at GTMO," reads the statement, "my predecessor arranged for SERE instructors to teach their techniques to the interrogators at GTMO ... The instructors did give some briefings to the Joint Interrogation Group interrogators."

    This is directly relevant to those in the American Psychological Association who are fighting to gain a moratorium on psychologist participation on interrogations, such as those at Guantánamo, and who maintain the leadership of the APA is pro-government and pro-torture, despite all their protestations and pretty, if legalistic, resolutions.

    Why? Because the the Chief Psychologist of SERE at the time was Colonel Morgan Banks. Banks was also, and importantly, handpicked by then APA President Gerald Koocher to serve with five other members of the military (out of 10 members total) on the PENS committee of the APA, which in 2005-06 investigated the question of psychologist involvement in coercive interrogations and torture in Bush's "war on terror". It issued a report that formally condemned torture, and psychologist participation in same, but supported ongoing psychologist participation in national security interrogations.

    For his part,Banks denied to the Washington Monthly introducing SERE techniques to Guantánamo interrogators, but then he may not have been "chief of the Interrogation Control Element". Nevertheless, he is

    responsible for the training and oversight of all Army SERE Psychologists, who include those involved in SERE training and in the repatriation of former detainees and prisoners of war. He provides technical support and consultation to all Army psychologists providing interrogation support, and his office currently provides the only Army training for psychologists in repatriation planning and execution, interrogation support, and behavioral profiling.

    By the way, thanks to the Kiley report (of then Army Surgeon General, the now-disgraced Kevin Kiley), we know that all Behavioral Science Consultation Team or BSCT members at Guantánamo must undergo SERE training. And, New York Times writers M. Gregg Bloche and Jonathan H. Marks had a source tell them that Banks was intimately involved in constructing interrogation policy at Guantánamo, just as he had been when stationed at Baghram Air Force Base in Afghanistan in 2002-2003:

    We also learned from a Pentagon official that the SERE program's chief psychologist, Col. Morgan Banks, issued guidance in early 2003 for the "behavioral science consultants" who helped to devise Guantánamo's interrogation strategy (we've been unable to learn the content of that guidance).

    And this is the man who was to dispassionately investigate and counsel on the role of psychologists in interrogations for the oh-so-liberal APA?

    Which takes me back to Alberto Gonzales. He, of course, is infamous for counseling Bush for rejecting Geneva Convention protections to prisoners captured in the military actions against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Here's a link to his memo of January 25, 2002.

    Would Gonzales have as easily made his recommendation to allow torture if he himself had suffered, as many Air Force cadets of his age did, the torments of SERE training? Or if he had taken the training, and I cannot be sure he didn't undertake it, could that experience have hardened him, made him ready to revenge his sufferings on nameless men, women, and children he had never seen, who would undergo coercive interrogations because they were deemed "enemy combatants" in a new kind of war that Bush, Cheney, and Gonzales felt existed above national and international law?

    We can't answer that question. But one thing for sure, the torture continues. The perpetrators escape accountability. And the nation sleeps in restless slumber, dreaming of American Idol fame, of Jack Bauer rescue and failure, and of invisible American and Iraqi corpses, hidden from the T.V. screens.

    Gonzales's likely skipping of SERE training is like Bush's playing hooky from National Guard service. Both are symbols of American adolescent irresponsibility and hauteur: let the others do the dirty work, and screw everybody else.

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