Crossposted from They Gave Us a Republic

First, a little background:  When Americans, be they military, civilian or diplomatic personnel, end up isolated or in the custody of hostiles, the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA) is tasked with getting them back.  The JPRA supports policy and doctrine development for the recovery of personnel.  They also research tactics, techniques and procedures (TTP) to assist the service branches in conducting joint recovery operations.  JPRA is also in charge of SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) training – something that until in the last few days few people had ever heard of.  But that is perfectly understandable when you consider that only about two percent of the people in this country ever serve in the military and of those who serve, a very small percentage go through SERE training.  Frankly, I never wanted SERE to become common knowledge, and most of us who have had occasion in our lives before this mess erupted to know what the hell it is don’t either, for reasons that are our own.  (Those of us who know have a different idea of what the sequence of words “need to know” mean, too, and that difference is based on context and experience.)

I offer that background so the significance of this Washington Post article can be better appreciated by those who may have never heard of JPRA, and have only a recent, superficial acquaintance with SERE.  

In 2002, the advice of the JPRA was sought on the “enhanced interrogation techniques” that the Bush administration was hell-bent on employing against terrorism suspects, but I doubt that they were expecting the response they got.  JPRA didn’t equivocate, didn’t qualify, didn’t flinch.  They called the techniques “torture” and warned sternly that their use would lead to “unreliable information.”

“The unintended consequence of a U.S. policy that provides for the torture of prisoners is that it could be used by our adversaries as justification for the torture of captured U.S. personnel,” says the document, an unsigned two-page attachment to a memo by the military’s Joint Personnel Recovery Agency. Parts of the attachment, obtained in full by The Washington Post, were quoted in a Senate report on harsh interrogation released this week.

It remains unclear whether the attachment reached high-ranking officials in the Bush administration. But the document offers the clearest evidence that has come to light so far that technical advisors on the harsh interrogation methods voiced early concerns about the effectiveness of applying severe physical or psychological pressure.

The document was included among July 2002 memoranda that described severe techniques used against Americans in past conflicts and the psychological effects of such treatment. JPRA ran the military program known as Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE), which trains pilots and others to resist hostile questioning.

The cautionary attachment was forwarded to the Pentagon’s Office of the General Counsel as the administration finalized the legal underpinnings of a CIA interrogation program that would sanction the use of 10 forms of coercion, including waterboarding, a technique that simulates drowning. The JPRA material was sent from the Pentagon to the CIA’s acting general counsel, John A. Rizzo, and on to the Justice Department, according to testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee.  (all emphasis mine.)

In spite of the strongly worded caution from the people who had first hand, real world experience with the tactics those at the top in the Bush administration held a sick fascination for, the plan to torture went forward, and just days later the use of 10 tortures was authorized for use in interrogating Abu Zubaida, who the administration (wrongly) cast as (yet another) “top lieutenant” in al Qa’eda.  Zubaida was ultimately water boarded 83 times in a single month, but former intelligence officials who were in a position to know contend that Zubaida offered little useful information about al Qa’eda plots.  

It is unknown whether William Haynes, who was then the top legal counsel at the Pentagon, ever passed the memo from JPRA on to other officials who were reviewing the proposed program, and everyone who has that knowledge has suddenly been rendered mute.

In 2002 the chief of staff of the JPRA, Daniel Baumgartner, sent the memos and attachments to those developing the torture program, and now says that “a lot of cautionary notes” were forwarded, strongly warning against using torture as a means to gather intelligence.   “There is a difference between what we do in training and what the administration wanted the information for,” he said a telephone interview last week. “What the administration decided to do or not to do was up to the guys dealing with offensive prisoner operations. . . . We train our own people for the worst possible outcome . . . and obviously the United States government does not torture its own people.”  

In short – the “R” in SERE stands for resistance…to torture.

Senator Levin, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee believes that the warnings from JPRA were, at best, deliberately ignored…and at worst, suppressed.  “It’s part of a pattern of squelching dissent,” said Levin.  “They didn’t want to hear the downside.”  He added that there were other instances in which internal reviews of detainee treatment were halted or undermined.  

A former official with the Bush administration said that the National Security Council received multiple briefings on the planned program by George Tenet and CIA lawyers, but the issues raised in the JPRA attachment were never addressed.  Tenet is refusing to comment.  “That information was not brought to the attention of the principals,” said the official, who had been involved in deliberations on interrogation policy, and who would only agree to speak to the Post anonymously because the issue is so sensitive.  “That would have been relevant. The CIA did not present with pros and cons, or points of concern. They said this was safe and effective, and there was no alternative.”

The Aug. 1 memo on the interrogation of Abu Zubaida draws from the JPRA’s memo on psychological effects to conclude that while waterboarding constituted “a threat of imminent death,” it did not cause “prolonged mental harm.” Therefore, the Aug. 1 memo concluded, waterboarding “would not constitute torture within the meaning of the statute.”

But the JPRA’s two-page attachment, titled “Operational Issues Pertaining to the Use of Physical/Psychological Coercion in Interrogation,” questioned the effectiveness of employing extreme duress to gain intelligence.

“The requirement to obtain information from an uncooperative source as quickly as possible — in time to prevent, for example, an impending terrorist attack that could result in loss of life — has been forwarded as a compelling argument for the use of torture,” the document said. “In essence, physical and/or psychological duress are viewed as an alternative to the more time-consuming conventional interrogation process. The error inherent in this line of thinking is the assumption that, through torture, the interrogator can extract reliable and accurate information. History and a consideration of human behavior would appear to refute this assumption.”

Within the National Security Council there was no consideration – none – about the etiology of the techniques they wanted to use….that the program they were signing off on…was being built around the Communist Chinese methodical method of confession extr
action.  An enemy program that we had found deplorable to the point of depravity because it was geared to getting confessions, real or not, out of Air Force pilots and other personnel who were at higher risk of capture than the average boots on the ground.    

Nearly a year ago, when we first learned that the program was built around the SERE training that was based on the work of the sociologist Dr. Albert Biderman, who interviewed repatriated prisoners of the Korean war.  Some of those  prisoners had been filmed by their interrogators falsely confessing to germ warfare and other atrocities.   Those taped confessions led to allegations of brainwashing.  SERE was born out of the military’s attempt to inoculate potential POWs against quick capitulation should they be captured.  

It has long been a given that waterboarding is a war crime.  The United States military has tried, convicted and hanged enemy officers for it.  We have court martialed our own personnel for doing it.  The disconnect between the previous administration and our history is staggering.   “A subject in pain may provide an answer, any answer, or many answers in order to get the pain to stop,” the JPRA attachment warned.  It concluded with “the application of extreme physical and/or psychological duress (torture) has some serious operational deficits, most notably the potential to result in unreliable information,” and the word “extreme” was underlined.

The JPRA article contrasted sharply with the arguments being made by the craven, perverted thugs who wanted to make the United States a nation of torturers, specifically Jessen and Mitchell, two former military psychologists who are in the same league as their Soviet and Chinese counterparts and ideological peers of yesteryear.  Men and women who betrayed their humanity and their professions to extract false confessions from enemies from without – and from within – for purposes of pure propaganda, because the honest truth did not further a political agenda.  

And that makes me ask…Why were they so hell-bent, right from the start?  Did they ultimately want to do those things to their political opponents at home, a la Pinochet or the “Dirty War” of the 70’s in Argentina?  To do that, they had to first sell it to Americans by getting the imprimatur of tacit approval from a wide swath of the American public by doing it to a common enemy first?   I don’t know if that was their end goal or not, but I can sure as hell believe it from that crowd of cowards, perverts and chickenshits.