SERE Psychologists Still Used in Special Ops Interrogations and Detention

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Originally posted at Firedoglake

The great novelist William Faulkner famously wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

With all the controversy over the use of Survival, Evasion, Escape, Resistance, or SERE, psychologists in the interrogation of “high-value detainees” — most recently detailed in a fascinating melange of an article in last Sunday’s Washington Post —  everyone seems to assume that terrible chapter is a thing of the past. Recent documentation that has come to my attention suggests otherwise.

The reasons no one until now has noticed the current activities of SERE psychologists in offensive military operations are that, one, no one has cared to look, and two, a specious narrative ending in the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC)  report, “Treatment of Detainees in U.S. Custody,” released last April, that appeared to conclude the episode was over. In its Executive Summary, the SASC concluded that, in September 2004, “JFCOM [U.S. Joint Forces Command] issued a formal policy stating that support to offensive interrogation operations was outside JPRA’s charter.” And that, presumably, was that.

JPRA, or Joint Personnel Recovery Agency, operates under U.S. Joint Forces Command, and is responsible for “for shaping and enabling the planning, preparation and coordination of personnel recovery for DoD.” Its mission is subordinated to the preparation of U.S. military personnel for capture, and organizing “tactics, techniques and procedures (TTP) to assist the services in conducting joint recovery operations.” The SERE program is supposed to train personnel for what to expect if they are captured, and prepare them for the onerous rigors of brutal captivity and torture.

The SASC report essentially tells the story of how JPRA and SERE went off the rails after 9/11. It presents a compelling documentary narrative of how Bush administration officials, eager to get information from prisoners newly captured in the “war on terror,” for operational needs, or to manufacture intel to back up their plans to invade Iraq, or other nefarious purposes, found in JPRA/SERE an ambitious group of individuals eager to promote themselves and expand the work of their agency. Elsewhere, I have documented that some of these folk also were motivated by money.<!–more–>

The SASC narrative demonstrates, with sundry gaps, how SERE training for captivity was “reverse-engineered” into a torture program that spread throughout the various theatres of U.S. military and intelligence activities, from the CIA to DoD prison operations at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, and elsewhere. The narrative describes both the support, and sometimes resistance, of various officers within the military bureaucracy to the spread of SERE offensive techniques.

But while the Executive Summary concludes with the spanking of JPRA and various officers for allowing JPRA and SERE to operate outside their charter — indeed, this straining against the mandated charter of JPRA is a central theme of the SASC report — and concludes SERE was shut out of “offensive” operations –the documentary portion of the report presents a different, more nuanced, ending. To better understand the importance of the latter, we must first consider how we know that SERE psychologists, in 2009, are back in the “offensive operations” business.

SERE Returns to the Battlefield

An extraordinary piece of information lies buried in a June 15, 2009 Air Force Special Operations Command Instruction (48-101) on “Aeromedical Special Operations.” This document ostensibly “establishes Mission Qualification and Mission Ready clinical medical training requirements for AFSOC operational medical personnel,” and notes “compliance with this publication is mandatory.”

While the Instruction appears to apply only to U.S. Air Force support by medical personnel, Section 5.7, in the chapter for “Medical Operations,” presents something totally different. This section describes the functions of Special Forces Psychologists (SOFPSY), who are composed of “those SERE and Aviation qualified psychologists assigned to AFSOC operational units.” These psychologists are now instructed to provide “psychological oversight of battlefield interrogation and detention,” among other functions.

The Instruction details the functions of Special Operations Psychologists, and it’s hard to believe they are talking about medical issues here. An in-depth look at what the document actually says is in order (bold emphases added): The primary responsibility of the SOFPSY is to support AFSOC operational units and missions through battlefield interventions and consultation, and in-garrison preparation for, and reconstitution from, combat operations. They do this by providing psychological consultation and services to include: Unit and individual performance enhancement. Unit climate assessments. Personnel selection programs. Psychological oversight for SERE training. Special training programs. Post-mishap and combat trauma recovery and return to duty. Reintegration of recovered personnel, after isolation in hostile territory. Human factors expertise for mishap investigations and prevention activities. Consultation to Influence Operations. Adversary profiling. Psychological oversight of battlefield interrogation and detention. In garrison, SOFPSYs are usually assigned to an operations unit at the Group level. When deployed, SOFPSYs serve in unit or battle-staff positions to facilitate their consultation and liaison roles. Most services provided by the SOFPSY fall into the categories of consultation and training, and are not clinical treatment interventions. When airmen require clinical treatment services, the SOFPSY primarily serves as liaison between commanders, unit personnel and the appropriate medical service provider. Typically, they will refer individuals needing clinical mental health evaluation and/or medical treatment to medical treatment facilities.

Special Operations Command clearly doesn’t intend to use SERE psychologists for medical or clinical purposes. This blurring of medical and operational roles in a memorandum meant to document the roles of medical personnel is typical of the way in which the torture program, which utilizes medical and psychological personnel, has tried to hide its primary activities.

The long SASC report concludes with a section entitled “U.S. Joint Forces Command Issues Policy Guidance For JPRA ‘Offensive’ Support.” It provides a narrative reconstruction of events at odds with the presentation in its Executive Summary. As noted, the entire SASC narrative is about reining in a JPRA agency that (mostly willingly) violated its charter, albeit wooed by others to do so. The Executive Summary ends with a chastened JPRA. The final section of the SASC report itself concludes somewhat differently.

In the September 2004 memo that supposedly put the kibosh on SERE activities, which are typically limited to “defensive” recovery operations, JFCOM Chief of Staff, Major General Soligan, wrote:

Recent requests from OSD [Office of the Secretary of Defense] and the Combatant Commands have solicited JPRA support based on knowledge and their application to U.S. strategic debriefing and interrogation techniques. These requests, which can be characterized as “offensive” techniques include, but are not limited to, activities designed not to increase one’s resistance capabilities to interrogation techniques but rather intended to instruct personnel, for the purpose of gathering of information, on how to break down another’s ability to withstand interrogation … The use of resistance to interrogation knowledge for “offensive” purposes lies outside the roles and responsibilities of JPRA.

That might have been an end to it, but there was a loophole, one that the SASC Executive Summary fails to mention. JPRA could still use their expertise for “offensive” support if “vetted through proper legal and policy channels.” That meant, per the memo (emphasis added):

JPRA personnel will not conduct any activities without specific approval from the USJFCOM Commander, Deputy Commander, or the Chief of Staff. Deviations from the JPRA chartered mission of this nature are policy decisions that will be forwarded to the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) for action. JPRA will continue to direct all requests for external support through USJFCOM and refrain from providing any support or information unless specifically directed by USJFCOM as outlined above.

Hence, after all that was learned about mission creep, overstepping chartered mandates, the pressure of other agencies and politicians upon JPRA and SERE, and even the misgivings of some at JPRA itself, the new policy allowed for “deviations.” Even more noteworthy, such “deviations of JPRA “roles and responsibilities” would run through the office of the Secretary of Defense. In 2009, that office would be run by Bush’s former SecDef, and now Barack Obama’s SecDef, Robert Gates.

“… not even past”

There are three conclusions I immediately draw from this turn of events. Others may find more to comment upon.

One,  the specious short-version narrative from the SASC report, and its failure to put recommendations to its conclusions on the use of SERE torture, put everyone to sleep.

Two, not much has changed since the bad, old days of Bush and Cheney. SERE psychologists are still used in the field much as Mitchell and Jessen were, to construct psychological profiles on prisoners, and “consult” on interrogation plans. What else could this be for but instruction on “how to break down another’s ability to withstand interrogation,” because that is what SERE psychologists are trained to do? It’s what we’ve seen already they do in practice.

The entire episode narrated in the SASC report becomes then a tale of a military command (USJFCOM)  asserting command dominance over a subordinate agency, not a story of how SERE torture was stopped.

The “experiment” of using SERE support for interrogations continues, most likely in Afghanistan, whose new commander is Army Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, former chief of Joint Special Forces Command, who bears command responsibility for the use of SERE interrogators and techniques to conduct torture at Camp Nama in Iraq (and possibly elsewhere).

Three, with McChrystal in Afghanistan, and with Robert Gates at the Office of Secretary of Defense — and given premises one and two above — one can charitably conclude that truly not much has changed under President Barack Obama when it comes to military operations. The prohibition on the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” by the Obama administration leaves plenty of room for the use of other, SERE-based techniques, and leaves intact the core, pre-SERE torture program which relies on isolation, sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation or overload, and promulgation of fears to break down prisoners. The latter program, along with a light prohibition on only those drugs that cause “long-term damage,” remains at the heart of the military’s current Army Field Manual.

At a minimum, someone should be asking President Obama or Secretary of Defense Gates at their next press conference why they have made an exception to allow SERE psychologists, implicated in torture from Guantanamo to Afghanistan, to oversee special operations battlefield interrogations and detentions. I hope I don’t have to wait a long time.

Also posted at Invictus


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    • Valtin on July 23, 2009 at 21:28

    If this is going to be on rec list, it should have a comment. But I really had nothing much to add from what the article says.

    I guess I’m underwhelmed at the response this has gotten in the blog world thus far. You’d think it would be big news to those who followed the SASC report or the SERE torture story, but nary a peep out of those commentators.

    Well, it takes a while for things to sink in. Also, no one big (except maybe Greenwald, and ACLU or few other human rights groups) wants to take on Obama for what he’s doing on the military side. Maybe they recognize Obama is not totally in control of or even understands the entire military-intelligence apparatus.

  1. clinging to their image of Obama as a change agent.  When health reform fails, as it was designed to do, some of those people will wake up and start paying attention.  

    Some are sycophants just like republicans, and will never believe their leader would do anything bad.  

  2. Pisses me off on numerous levels. Thanks for posting it. I like Obama, but that’s contingent on my having thought he at least stopped the torture. Once a SERE Psychologist has overseen torture, there would be no coming back from that without serious change in themselves – change that doesn’t happen overnight.  Change, that ought to be made in the Hague.

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