Documents Reveal “Reverse-Engineered” SERE Tactics Used in Afghan Torture

Documents released last week by the ACLU reveal that U.S. Special Forces interrogation teams operating in Paktia province illegally tortured Afghan prisoners. As a result of brutal treatment by his interrogators, one of the detainees subsequently died.

Debriefing files from the military’s Criminal Investigation Division (CID), obtained as a result of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit against the Department of Defense, confirmed that Special Operations officers in Gardez admitted to using reverse-engineered Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) techniques on detainees.

According to the ACLU,

Today’s documents reveal charges that Special Forces beat, burned, and doused eight prisoners with cold water before sending them into freezing weather conditions. One of the eight prisoners, Jamal Naseer, died in U.S. custody in March 2003. In late 2004, the military opened a criminal investigation into charges of torture at Gardez. Despite numerous witness statements describing the evidence of torture, the military’s investigation concluded that the charges of torture were unsupported. It also concluded that Naseer’s death was the result of a “stomach ailment,” even though no autopsy had been conducted in his case. Documents uncovered today also refer to sodomy committed by prison guards; the victims’ identities are redacted.1

SERE, a program designed to train American service members for possible brutal treatment should they be captured in combat, was reverse-engineered by CIA and Special Operations Command psychologists as a means to break alleged “enemy combatants” in U.S. custody.

As was first revealed by Salon’s Mark Benjamin in 2006, the former chief of the Interrogation Control Element at Guantánamo Bay’s Camp Delta detention facility, in a March 2005 sworn statement, said that SERE instructors from Ft. Bragg, N.C., taught their methods to interrogators in Cuba.

According to Benjamin, the affidavit read, in part: “When I arrived at GTMO, my predecessor arranged for SERE instructors to teach their techniques to the interrogators at GTMO … The instructors did give some briefings to the Joint Interrogation Group interrogators.”

As with this month’s revelations by the ACLU, earlier reports suggest that Fort Bragg’s SERE school, run by the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, was the hothouse where brutal interrogation techniques were cultivated before migrating to Guantánamo and then on to Afghanistan and Iraq’s notorious Abu Ghraib prison, “Gitmoized” under U.S. Major General Geoffrey D. Miller’s command.

A close associate of Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Stephen Cambone, Miller’s brief was to impose a virtual regime of terror upon detainees at Saddam Hussein’s former prison. Many of SERE’s techniques, including hooding, drugging, isolation, random assaults and forced nudity were applied with appalling results at Abu Ghraib.

Since leaving the Pentagon, Cambone has become a top executive with the British-owned defense and security contractor QinetiQ, based in McClean, Virginia.

According to CorpWatch investigative reporter Tim Shorrock, QinetiQ signed a five-year, $30 million contract with the Pentagon’s now-defunct Counterintelligence Field Activity unit (CIFA). One of CIFA’s directorates, Behavioral Sciences, has provided a “team of renowned forensic psychologists [who] are engaged in risk assessments of the Guantánamo Bay detainees.”

Writing in the July 11, 2005 issue of the New Yorker, investigative reporter Jane Mayer revealed that Behavioral Science Consultation Teams (BSCTS) under General Miller’s watch at Guantánamo Bay, became “essential in developing integrated interrogation strategies and assessing interrogation intelligence production,” Miller explained in an internal report in September, 2003. According to Mayer’s sources,

[A]fter September 11th several psychologists versed in SERE techniques began advising interrogators at Guantánamo Bay and elsewhere. Some of these psychologists essentially “tried to reverse-engineer” the SERE program, as the affiliate put it. “They took good knowledge and used it in a bad way,” another of the sources said. Interrogators and BSCT members at Guantánamo adopted coercive techniques similar to those employed in the SERE program. Ideas intended to help Americans resist abuse spread to Americans who used them to perpetrate abuse. Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Virginia, is a scholar of state-sponsored experiments on humans. He says, ‘If you know how to help people who are stressed, then you also know how to stress people, in order to get them to talk.’2

Since Mayer’s initial reporting in 2005, Salon‘s Mark Benjamin identified two of the SERE-linked psychologists: CIA contractors James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen. Present during the interrogation of a “high-value” prisoner, presumably at a CIA “black site” in 2002, “Mitchell urged harsh techniques that would break down the prisoner’s psychological defenses, creating a feeling of “‘helplessness’.”

As Afghan prisoner Jamal Naseer was burned, doused with cold water and then beaten to a pulp by U.S. Special Forces’ interrogators well-versed in SERE techniques, one is left to wonder at Naseer’s feelings of “helplessness” as his tormentors watched him die.

  1. Documents Obtained by ACLU Describe Charges of Murder and Torture of Prisoners in U.S. Custody,” American Civil Liberties Union, Press Release, April 16, 2008. []
  2. Jane Mayer, “The Experiment,” New Yorker, July 11, 2005. []

Tom Burghardt is a researcher and activist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. His articles are published in many venues. He is the editor of Police State America: U.S. Military "Civil Disturbance" Planning, distributed by AK Press. Read other articles by Tom, or visit Tom's website.

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  1. Arch Stanton said on April 23rd, 2008 at 11:30am #

    Principles of International Law Recognized in the Charter of the Nüremberg Tribunal and in the Judgment of the Tribunal, 1950.

    Principle I

    Any person who commits an act which constitutes a crime under international law is responsible therefor and liable to punishment.

    Principle II

    The fact that internal law does not impose a penalty for an act which constitutes a crime under international law does not relieve the person who committed the act from responsibility under international law.

    Principle III

    The fact that a person who committed an act which constitutes a crime under international law acted as Head of State or responsible Government official does not relieve him from responsibility under international law.

    Principle IV

    The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him.

    Principle V

    Any person charged with a crime under international law has the right to a fair trial on the facts and law.

    Principle VI

    The crimes hereinafter set out are punishable as crimes under international law:

    (a) Crimes against peace:
    (i) Planning, preparation, initiation or waging of a war of aggression or a war in violation of international treaties, agreements or assurances;
    (ii) Participation in a common plan or conspiracy for the accomplishment of any of the acts mentioned under (i).

    (b) War crimes:
    Violations of the laws or customs of war include, but are not limited to, murder, ill-treatment or deportation to slave-labour or for any other purpose of civilian population of or in occupied territory, murder or ill-treatment of prisoners of war, of persons on the seas, killing of hostages, plunder of public or private property, wanton destruction of cities, towns, or villages, or devastation not justified by military necessity.

    (c) Crimes against humanity:
    Murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation and other inhuman acts done against any civilian population, or persecutions on political, racial or religious grounds, when such acts are done or such persecutions are carried on in execution of or in connexion with any crime against peace or any war crime.

    Principle VII

    Complicity in the commission of a crime against peace, a war crime, or a crime against humanity as set forth in Principle VI is a crime under international law.

  2. Arch Stanton said on April 23rd, 2008 at 11:32am #

    BTW people, pay special attention to Principle VII.

    “You can’t find justice, it’ll find you.”

  3. hp said on April 23rd, 2008 at 12:17pm #

    Which may be construed to mean; maybe you don’t believe in karma, but karma certainly believes in you.

  4. hp said on April 23rd, 2008 at 12:28pm #

    “Jackson (Supreme Court judge) is away conducting his high grade lynching party in Nuremberg. I don’t mind what he does to the Nazis, but I hate to see the pretense that he is running a court and proceeding according to common law. This is a little too sanctimonious a fraud to meet my old fashioned ideas.”
    Chief Justice of the Supreme Court,
    Harlan Fiske Stone

  5. Lloyd Rowsey said on April 23rd, 2008 at 3:55pm #

    “The common law” are words of art, hp, used by lawyers. In fact, they refer to what used to comprise almost all of the the teachings of the first year of law schools in America — the (judge-made) laws of England as they developed over centuries. Such law has been almost completely replaced by legislated law, seemingly so different but similarly made by and reflecting the interests of the wealthy and powerful.

    Jackson had hope. Stone faced squarely toward the past. The same choice we still have.

  6. evie said on April 25th, 2008 at 8:32am #

    Has anyone read all of the .pdf documents on the ACLU site regarding this matter?