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."