Surviving, Evading, Resisting and Escaping (SERE) Accountability

The American Psychological Association's (APA) recent release of an internal investigation of possible ethics violations by APA members is just another example of the devastating consequences of the decision to employ inhuman, degrading and abusive treatment of prisoners as an instrument of national policy.
07/22/2015 03:29 pm ET Updated Jul 22, 2016

The American Psychological Association's (APA) recent release of an internal investigation of possible ethics violations by APA members is just another example of the devastating consequences of the decision to employ inhuman, degrading and abusive treatment of prisoners as an instrument of national policy.

Official investigations over the years have documented the damage caused by the integration of abusive tactics into interrogations. Most notably, the Senate Armed Service Committee (SASC) Detainee Abuse hearings in 2008 focused on the Department of Defense (DOD) and the role that psychologists played in the development of interrogations based on Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) tactics, which were designed to expose our service members to the types of abuse they might expect from a brutal enemy with no regard for international law, the Geneva Conventions or the United Nations Convention Against Torture. The decision to employ abusive, degrading and inhumane treatment against detainees was illegal, immoral, ineffective and inconsistent with American values.

The SASC hearings revealed that SERE-inspired torture migrated from the CIA to DOD at Guantanamo Bay and then on to Abu Ghraib. The deplorable abuses at these facilities wound up aiding and abetting enemies of the United States by facilitating terrorist recruitment and financing.

SERE psychologists with experience in abusing service members under highly controlled conditions, but little to no experience in real world interrogations, ignored warnings from investigators, interrogators, lawyers and operational psychologists with experience in supporting constitutionally permitted interrogations. Some of those psychologists promoting SERE not only advised and trained interrogators, but they themselves committed torture. Some even profited from it.

One of those psychologists, Morgan Banks recently stated, "We did some bad stuff in 2002 and 2003," but he failed to elaborate on his role in torture at Guantanamo. He failed to mention that the Joint Forces Command (JFC), which has authority over the SERE program, had issued an order that SERE tactics should not be used in an offensive manner.

I have been in the middle of this controversy since 2002 when the utilization of degrading, inhumane and abusive tactics based on SERE methods was being considered at Guantanamo. I was the Deputy Commander of the Criminal Investigation Task Force (CITF), created by President Bush to bring al-Qaeda terrorists to justice. I was operating under President Bush's Military Order of November 13, 2001 providing authorization to the DOD on the detention, treatment and trial of terrorists. The President's order gave the DOD the authority to investigate and to bring suspected terrorists to trial before military commissions. The order also stated that DOD detainees shall be treated humanely and afforded adequate food, drinking water, shelter, clothing and medical treatment.

I had global operational responsibility over teams of investigators, intelligence analysts, lawyers and operational psychologists, all with experience in investigations, operations and interrogation, including many with experience investigating and interrogating terrorists. The SERE psychologists lacked such experience.

CITF and its Behavioral Science Consulting Team (BCST), comprised of experienced operational psychologists, universally opposed the use of SERE tactics as an interrogation technique from the onset. CITF also cautioned against the creation of a separate JTF-GTMO BSCT by psychologists who were clinicians and who lacked the training and operational experience of the CITF BSCT, and warned JTF-GTMO leadership and the JTF-GTMO BSCT against any direct involvement in interrogations. The actions of SERE psychologists and the JTF-GTMO BSCT and command authorities were inconsistent with the President's order.

The devastating consequences of ignoring these orders and warnings are well known, yet torture apologists continue to make dubious claims that their actions saved lives with statements like, "People are alive because of my work...detainees are alive because of it." Nothing could be further from the truth. The most effective way to obtain accurate and reliable information from a suspect is through humane methods that are consistent with the rule of law and our constitutional framework.

In 2002, when SERE tactics were being considered at Guantanamo, a CIA lawyer came to the prison to explain how the CIA was employing SERE-derived techniques. He advised: "If a detainee dies, you're doing it wrong." I was apoplectic. I knew back then that history would judge us harshly, and I regret that we were unable to stop those who committed torture.

President Obama has acknowledged "we tortured some folks" and "we did some things that were contrary to our values." Yet SERE psychologists that enabled the inhumane treatment and torture have yet to be held accountable for their actions.

Of course, not all psychologists deserve censure for the sins of their SERE-inspired colleagues. In fact, many psychologists and APA members have assisted me in my efforts over the years in trying to prevent the stain of torture on our country. While the APA report raises legitimate questions about ethics and conflicts of interest, we must not tar all psychologists with the same brush. I strongly believe that psychologists offered and continue to offer significant contributions to our national security by providing advice and critical research that enables operators to lawfully, ethically and effectively conduct interrogations.

It's time for President Obama and Congress to take bipartisan action to ensure that we never again venture to the dark side. The Senate recently repudiated torture by passing the McCain-Feinstein amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, putting our national security and national honor ahead of partisanship. Interrogation and national security professionals, legal scholars and human rights groups, as well as the APA itself endorsed this bipartisan amendment.

We must emerge from our dark history and ensure that the McCain-Feinstein amendment is enacted into law. We, as a nation, need to address the strategic liability of Guantanamo and find bipartisan ways to close this symbol of U.S. oppression, injustice and torture. We also need to hold accountable those who so callously damaged our national security and our country's honor.

We can again be the beacon for ideals and universal values. I urge the President and Congress to take action together. America is strongest when our policies and actions match our values.