In reaching and justifying its decision to waterboard detainees, the Bush administration relied on the argument that the U.S. military had done the same thing, without lasting harm, to its own troops. CIA Director George Tenet assured President Bush and his Cabinet officers that such methods "had been used on thousands of American trainees" during Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape training, according to today's New York Times. An August 2002 memo from Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee to the CIA's acting general counsel laid out the case:
[Y]ou have informed us that your proposed interrogation methods have been used and continue to be used in SERE training. It is our understanding that these techniques are not used one by one in isolation, but as a full course of conduct to resemble a real interrogation. Thus, the information derived from SERE training bears both upon the use of the individual techniques and upon their use as a course of conduct. You have found that the use of these methods together or separately, including the use of the waterboard, has not resulted in any negative long-term mental health consequences. The continued use of these methods without mental health consequences to the trainees indicates that it is highly improbable that such consequences would result here.
The administration's defenders still invoke this argument. "If this is torture, we've been torturing our own soldiers for years," a former Republican Justice Department official tells the Los Angeles Times. "Why is it that we are all of a sudden revolted and aghast?"
One answer is that SERE has indeed been torturing our own soldiers and that this practice must end. That's the view of David Morris, a former Marine who recently described his harrowing SERE experience in Slate. But other SERE graduates disagree. And Slate's Christopher Hitchens, who endured waterboarding last year, reminded Vanity Fair readers that in SERE, "Americans were being trained to resist, not to inflict" torture.
The more fundamental problem is that the administration was wrong to extrapolate SERE's results. In several crucial respects, contrary to the 2002 memo, SERE does not "resemble a real interrogation." Jerald Ogrisseg, who served as chief of psychology services at the Air Force SERE school, explained these differences to the Senate Armed Services Committee last year.
The first difference, Ogrisseg noted, is that SERE trains soldiers to defeat interrogation, whereas "the real world interrogator wants to win." This is a moral difference, as Hitchens observed. But it's also a practical difference: An interrogator whose job is to extract information will behave more harshly than an interrogator who's teaching resistance.
Second, SERE pits American interrogators against American trainees. "When dealing with non-country personnel, as in the case of detainee handling, there is greater risk of dehumanization of these personnel, and thus a greater likelihood of worse treatment," Ogrisseg warned.
Third, SERE offers interventions that relieve stress and reinforce the unreality of the exercise. Instructors and psychologists are available "to watch the students for indications that they are not coping well with training tasks, provide corrective interventions with them long before they become overwhelmed, and if need be, remotivate students who have become overwhelmed to enable them to succeed," Ogrisseg noted.
Fourth, SERE has "defined starting and ending points. … [T]rainees arrive on a certain date and know that they will depart on a specified date."
Fifth and most important, SERE is voluntary. "Students can withdraw from training," Ogrisseg noted. In a report issued four months ago, the Armed Services Committee added that in SERE, "students are even given a special phrase they can use to immediately stop" any ordeal. The report concluded:
The SERE schools employ strict controls to reduce the risk of physical and psychological harm to students during training. Those controls include medical and psychological screening for students, interventions by trained psychologists during training, and code words to ensure that students can stop the application of a technique at any time should the need arise. Those same controls are not present in real world interrogations.
Bush officials purported to replicate many of SERE's protective conditions. But most of these conditions can't be replicated in real interrogation. You can't make the detainees American. And if you want them to talk—which you most certainly do, because the stakes are all too real—then you can't promise them a release date, coach them in resistance, or give them magic words or signals to end a given session, much less the whole ordeal.
Even where the administration objectively limited what could be done to detainees, it concealed these limits from them in order to increase their terror. That's why former CIA Director Michael Hayden opposed the release of the 2002 memo: because, he points out, it discloses to future detainees "the outer limits that any American would ever go to in terms of interrogating an al-Qaida terrorist." The horror of real torture isn't just the pain or panic. It's that you have no idea where it will end.
The difference between SERE and the Bush interrogation program is the difference between S&M and rape. There is no consent. There are no mutually understood boundaries. There are no magic words. People who can't tell the difference between rape and S&M go to jail. What happens to people who can't tell the difference between torture and training?