The Genesis of Torture

Slate's blog on legal issues.
June 18 2008 11:21 AM

The Genesis of Torture

Yesterday, the Senate armed services committee released a 63-page set of documents that illuminates how the Pentagon developed, selected, and approved its list of coercive interrogation techniques for Guantanamo Bay.

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As Joby Warrick reports in today's Post , the documents clarify the role that the CIA (and senior government officials such as DoD General Counsel William "Jim" Haynes) played. "If the detainee dies, you're doing it wrong," CIA lawyer Jonathan Friedman proclaimed in a working group meeting that led to the development of this DoD memo on approved interrogation techniques.

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Even more significant, the documents show how the military's Joint Personnel Recovery Agency helped develop interrogation techniques, borrowing extensively from the military's Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape   courses . (Mark Benjamin provides a detailed timeline in Salon for precisely how this unfolded.) These techniques—which include water-boarding, confinement to small boxes, and stress positions, among others—were developed to mimic the interrogation practices of our worst enemies, such as the North Koreans and the North Vietnamese. It speaks volumes that they were adopted by the United States at Gitmo.

Tabs 2 and 3 confirm Jane Mayer's reporting on the use of SERE practices as an interrogation template—both at Guantanamo and elsewhere by the CIA. There wasn't a lot of hard evidence to support this narrative, though, and many chalked up the similarities between the Guantanamo and SERE techniques to coincidence or chance. For instance, in Philippe Sands' new book , retired JAG officer Diane Beaver and retired Maj. Gen. Michael Dunlavey recount a somewhat hazy process by which tactics made their way into memo form. Both hint that personnel from the CIA and other agencies were placed at Guantanamo to seed ideas. The memos released yesterday, however, indicate that there was a much more deliberate effort to share the SERE/JPRA community's tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs, in military parlance) with the interrogation community at Guantanamo. (Tab 16 shows this link, too.)

Tab 4 discusses the military's psychological assessment of personnel during SERE training. Taken by itself, this is a sign that the military cares about its personnel and wants to avoid "crushing the spirit of the students." But in the interrogation context, this memo reads uncomfortably like Mengele or Cold War-era research on torture.

In the October 2002 meeting described in Tab 7, FBI agents report talk of "wet towel" treatment during interrogations, despite the fact that water-boarding was explicitly not authorized by Haynes and Rumsfeld at that point. So, it appears that DoD personnel at Guantanamo took the initiative to use SERE techniques before they were approved by higher HQ. These meeting notes also confirm the presence and role of CIA personnel. And they strongly suggest that the Justice Department memoranda authored in Washington—but previously thought to have not reached Guantanamo—were probably shared with Guantanamo lawyers and intelligence personnel in some manner. This connects those memoranda with the one that then-Lt. Col. Beaver authored, which ultimately made its way to Rumsfeld's desk in December 2002.

Tab 19 further documents the relationship between SERE training and the interrogation practices at Guantanamo. But at some point, probably around the time of Abu Ghraib and the post-scandal investigations of all Defense Department detention and interrogation operations, there comes a break. Tab 24 contains a memo by the head of the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency that comes pretty darn close to refusing any future orders to participate in interrogations. The uniformed military seems to be trying to correct its course—insisting that SERE techniques could only be used for "defensive" use (i.e., training pilots, special forces, etc.), not for "offensive" use (interrogating enemy fighters). 

But by that point, three years had passed, and it may have been too late to undo the damage wrought by the Pentagon's torture policies.

Phillip Carter is an Iraq veteran who now directs the veterans research program at the Center for a New American Security.