The Bush-Cheney torture techniques were never meant to elicit reliable intelligence--they were meant to torture. I know, because they were used on me.
Many Americans assume the architects of the CIA's so-called "enhanced interrogation" program were hardened, trained professionals of the storied spy agency. But as the Senate torture report makes clear, the policy was, in fact, the brainchild of two psychologist contractors previously employed by the U.S. Air Force's SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) program. The history of this program reveals its true nature, and it has nothing to do with professional interrogation. The point of the SERE program is torture, and when the CIA hired SERE psychologists, that's exactly what it got.
Nearly 13 years after the CIA established secret "black site" prisons around the world to hold and interrogate detainees in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has released the executive summary of its report on the program. Among its 20 key findings, the report concludes that the program was (1) "not an effective means of acquiring intelligence," (2) "rested on inaccurate claims of their effectiveness," (3) "brutal and far worse than the CIA represented," (11) "unprepared as it began operating," (12) "deeply flawed throughout the program's duration," and (13) the CIA had "overwhelmingly outsourced operations," (18) "ignored numerous internal critiques, criticisms, and objections" and ultimately (20) "damaged the United States' standing in the world."
In February 2003, as the U.S. prepared to invade Iraq based partly on faulty intelligence emanating from forced confessions by detainees in U.S. custody, I shivered alone in my "POW" cell at SERE school, somewhere in the woods of northern Maine. As a Naval Flight Officer fresh out of flight school, advanced SERE training was the next hurdle in my Navy adventure that had begun more than five years earlier at Annapolis. I hadn't eaten or slept in almost a week, and I had no idea whether it was day or night. As I peered out through the keyhole, a huge, blinking eye stared back at me, watching my every move. Only later did I realize I was hallucinating. But even in this groggy state--and even after the torture--I still knew well enough I was in training, and this would all be over soon. The Navy had invested too much in me to allow any lasting damage, I figured. Of course, real prisoners aren't comforted by such a luxury. And in that unpleasant moment, I remember gushing with patriotic emotion, and taking solace in one uplifting thought: "At least my country doesn't do this to people."
In retrospect, that seems naive. But at the time, the world did not yet know that the U.S. government had enthroned torture as official policy, and constructed an extensive legal fig leaf to support it. To flex American muscle, the Bush Administration transformed the very methods used on officers like me in SERE training into the CIA's "enhanced interrogation" program. I felt violated and ashamed for my country.
The SERE program was established by the U.S. military in the 1950s to prepare its personnel at high risk of capture to resist torture at the hands of the enemy. Previously during the Korean War, Chinese and North Korean communists subjected American prisoners to brutal torture and propaganda measures. This harsh treatment took not only a physical and mental toll on American prisoners individually, it decimated morale and mutual support among the POWs as a group. Following termination of hostilities in Korea and the POWs' release, 21 Americans refused repatriation, choosing instead to remain in China. Some former prisoners who returned to the U.S. were charged with crimes including treason, desertion and mistreatment of fellow prisoners.
Hence, the Armed Forces reverse-engineered the torture measures inflicted on its troops in Korea, instituting the SERE program to coach resistance to interrogation and propaganda ploys. Every captured service member has a duty, the military preached in SERE, to "return with honor." By the time John McCain, James Stockdale and others were held at Hỏa Lò Prison (aka the "Hanoi Hilton") in North Vietnam in the 1960s, all high risk of capture personnel like aviators and special forces had been trained in torture resistance and the U.S. military's Code of Conduct, a sacred doctrine governing how combatants must evade capture, resist enemy coercion, and keep faith with their fellow prisoners.
Although the Geneva Conventions require that "Prisoners of war must at all times be humanely treated," the North Vietnamese maintained that American prisoners were "war criminals," engaged in an illegal war of aggression, and therefore not entitled to the protections the Geneva Conventions provide. Consequently, American POWs in Hanoi endured brutal torture, including beatings, rope bindings in stress positions and prolonged solitary confinement. Just as the North Vietnamese had justified their actions by delegitimizing their American enemies, Bush Administration lawyers similarly argued three decades later that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to terrorism suspects.
In the Administration's panic following 9/11, top officials led by Vice President Dick Cheney and his lawyer, David Addington, sought to demonstrate American strength to the Muslim world. The reverse-engineered torture techniques used in SERE training were haphazardly engineered back for use in CIA interrogations. The Senate report explains:
The CIA contracted with two psychologists to develop, operate, and assess its interrogation operations. The psychologists' prior experience was at the U.S. Air Force Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) school. Neither psychologist had any experience as an interrogator, nor did either have specialized knowledge of al-Qa'ida, a background in counterterrorism, or any relevant cultural or linguistic expertise.
By 2005, the psychologists, James Mitchell and John "Bruce" Jessen of Spokane, WA, had formed a company specifically to contract with the CIA. The agency, in turn, outsourced virtually all aspects of the program to Mitchell, Jessen & Associates in the form of a contract with options totaling more than $180 million. Despite having no experience or training in actual interrogation, Mitchell and Jessen personally interrogated many of the CIA's most significant detainees. To the degree there was any effort to assess the effectiveness of the interrogation program, Mitchell and Jessen graded their own work. By 2009, the psychologists had collected $81 million on the contract when the Obama Administration abruptly terminated it. The Senate report also notes that in 2007, Mitchell, Jessen & Associates received a multi-year indemnification agreement from the CIA to shield the company and its employees from legal liability arising out of the program. So far the CIA has paid out more than $1 million pursuant to the agreement.
The American public is woefully uninformed on torture, and few critics have the credibility to confront this damaging and demoralizing blight to our national character. A HuffPost/YouGov poll in April 2014 showed that 68 percent of Americans think government-sanctioned torture is sometimes justified. Sadly, Hollywood ticking-bomb scenarios and fear-mongering pundits shape the views of too many Americans, and even those whose consciences make them morally queasy on torture choose to cover their eyes and ears because they think it works, and they've been told it is necessary.
But even as President Obama has called torture by its name, his Department of Justice has so far refused to hold the CIA and top Bush-Cheney officials accountable. At Nuremberg, the U.S. led the effort in prosecuting Third Reich officials who provided the legal basis for Nazi war crimes. Today, in contrast, out of political expediency, President Obama has expressed a desire to "look forward as opposed to looking backwards." But abdicating our responsibility to uphold the rule of law only makes government-sanctioned torture during a future war, under a future president, more likely.
America's new confrontation with asymmetric warfare forces us to rethink challenging moral questions of jus in bello; that is, the right conduct in war. Since George Washington was our Commander in Chief, the United States has pledged to treat all prisoners humanely in wartime. As a signatory to the Geneva Conventions, we must uphold these principles and values, not pick and choose which enemies deserve protection under human rights law. Our treatment of even our most heinous enemies reflects on us, not them. This descent into the dark world of torture represents an unprecedented ethical lapse of American ideals, and severely undermines our self-identity as a shining beacon of truth and justice in the world.
My service in the United States Navy has been the greatest honor of my life. But with honor comes responsibility. It is long past time that we restore America's honor in the world by reckoning with this sad chapter in our recent past.