In torturers we trust

Our military’s notorious SERE program was back in the news this month. Well, the national and international news, anyway. The media in Maine continue to act as if the Navy’s SERE “torture school” in the mountains northeast of Rangeley doesn’t exist — which is exactly how the spies and sadists involved in the program want us to act.

On July 10, New York Times reporter James Risen revealed the findings of an in-depth report, commissioned by the American Psychological Association, which found that APA psychologists colluded with officials at the CIA and the Pentagon to develop interrogation techniques for terrorism suspects that amounted to torture, then lied about their involvement in those war crimes. The psychologists effectively “shielded” the torture program from criticism by other health professionals, including some inside the intelligence agency, Risen wrote, and APA officials even went so far as to weaken their own association’s ethical guidelines to allow members to participate in acts of brutality and depravity.

The private consulting firm at the center of the scandal, Mitchell, Jessen & Associates, was formed by psychologists whose expertise in torture tactics was acquired through their work for the SERE program. Dr. Bruce Jessen, for example, went from supervising the “mock” torture of our troops at a SERE school, purportedly to ensure the tactics didn’t go too far, to inflicting those tactics on enlisted men and women — and going too far in the process. “Dr. Jessen became so aggressive in that role that colleagues intervened to rein him in, showing him videotape of his ‘pretty scary’ performance,” the Times reported back in 2009.

This worldwide scandal is relevant to Maine because, although each branch of the military runs its own “torture schools,” the guidelines and practices of the SERE program (the initials stand for Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) are standardized. So it’s reasonable to assume that the Navy’s program in Redington Township — which offers the highest, toughest level of SERE training — has inflicted the same torture tactics on its students that have been employed at other facilities, including waterboarding, sleep and sensory deprivation, beatings and humiliations.

The most recent revelations about the SERE program’s links to torture should further undermine the public’s trust in the program’s overseers, who insist it’s both safe and vital to our national security. The APA report is a long tale of greed and fear and lies that permeated the highest levels of our vast national-security apparatus. Having exposed the ways SERE training of our defenders led to the torture of our supposed “enemies,” it’s time we examined the root of the problem — and one of those roots is firmly planted in our backyard.

I remain unconvinced that the mock-torture aspects of SERE training, developed during the Cold War, are relevant to the treatment troops are likely to encounter if captured by the rag-tag groups of insurgents our military has fought since the Berlin Wall fell a quarter-century ago. And I have a hard time believing that SERE interrogators — many, if not most, of whom are private contractors, not enlisted personnel — are able to inflict what could, perversely, be termed the “right amount” of pain and misery on our troops during this training.

As psychologists involved with the program have observed, if the amount of suffering inflicted at SERE’s fake POW camps is too little, the training will be ineffective. If it’s too much, the recipient will be conditioned to do whatever is necessary to avoid similar treatment in the future, thus undermining the purpose of the program, which is to teach participants how to resist harsh interrogation techniques.

And what about alternative responses to interrogation, such as misinformation and psychological manipulation of one’s interrogators, including the ability to elicit sympathy (if not mercy) from antagonists? Are those skills ever taught? And to what extent is the military able to mitigate the damage potentially caused to the larger campaign when an individual falls into enemy hands? Internet-savvy insurgents don’t need to slap a captured pilot around to find out what kind of plane he flies, as Cold War-era SERE training involved.

I’d like to think this is a matter of concern that transcends political divides, that both peacenik liberals and hawkish patriots would want assurances that our soldiers, sailors, pilots and spies are not undergoing unnecessary or irrelevant torture-resistance training. The mock-torture part of SERE training is classified, so unless someone with the authority to investigate does so, we’ll never know what’s really happening to our troops in our name and on our dimes. We’ll just have to rely on the word of officials and professionals whose credibility seems to erode by the day.

Chris Busby

About Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. He writes a weekly column for the BDN.