The Washington Independent
The Washington Independent

Report Details Origins of Bush-Era Interrogation Policies

A wealth of new information emerged Tuesday on interrogation practices.

Kenzo Norman
Last updated: Jul 31, 2020 | Apr 22, 2009

President George W. Bush (WDCpix)
President George W. Bush (WDCpix)

A wealth of new details emerged Tuesday about how techniques designed to help captured U.S. troops resist torture formed the basis for the post-9/11 interrogation policies of the Bush-era Pentagon.

Instructors of those techniques proved to be eager in 2002 and 2003 to disseminate them to an emerging crop of inexperienced military interrogators facing the prospect of wresting information out of new captives. “I believe our niche lies in the fact that we can provide the ability to exploit personnel based on how our enemies have done this type of thing over the last five decades,” said Joseph Witsch, an instructor for the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA), a component of U.S. Joint Forces Command that oversees the so-called Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Evasion (SERE) program for U.S. special forces, during a 2002 training session for U.S. military interrogators, according to a newly released report.

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin
Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Details like these came to light when an unclassified version of a Senate Armed Services Committee report on the Pentagon’s treatment of detainees in the war on terrorism (pdf) was made public late Tuesday. An unclassified executive summary of the report, released in December, gave the outlines of the narrative, an account of how extreme interrogation techniques never before considered legal for U.S. personnel to apply became widespread within the military. But the full extent of the story was unclear from the 21-page summary of the 200-page report.

JPRA, a previously obscure outpost inside the military command responsible for making the U.S. military services fight as a single entity, first emerged last year in committee hearings as a key element in the United States’ embrace of physical interrogation methods. Responsible for overseeing the SERE program around the military services, in which instructors in very controlled conditions teach U.S. troops how to endure and resist torture in enemy captivity. Such techniques, used by the Chinese and North Korean communist regimes, include waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and forced exposure to extremes of temperature — all of which were recommended by JPRA and SERE officials to U.S. interrogators.

Instructors in the SERE program and their overseers in JPRA are not trained interrogators. Before 9/11, SERE and JPRA never focused on applying their resistance training to interrogate captured enemies. “SERE instructors are not selected for their roles based on language skills, intelligence training, or expertise in eliciting information,” the committee report specifies.

Yet after 9/11, with President Bush’s declaration that the Geneva Conventions would not apply to al-Qaeda and Taliban captives, the Pentagon’s then-general counsel, Jim Haynes, began asking JPRA how SERE’s expertise could assist U.S. interrogators, a relatively small U.S. military cohort. JPRA officials, eager to help with U.S. military efforts against al-Qaeda, sought to help with minimal prompting. Col. John “Randy” Moulton proposed in February 2002 that JPRA send a team to the newly established detention and interrogation facility to create a “short course” about “interrogation from the resistance side.” It would be the first of several such courses developed throughout 2002 and 2003, in which JPRA and its SERE “resistance” experts helped U.S. military and, in some cases, CIA interrogators, “reverse-engineer” SERE procedures for use on detainees in Guantanamo Bay, Afghanistan, Iraq and, perhaps, the network of CIA secret prisons where the agency held “high-value” al-Qaeda captives.

A key figure is a SERE psychologist named Bruce Jessen. The chief psychologist frequently advised officials at Guantanamo Bay and the emerging cadre of U.S. interrogators in techniques designed to break U.S. soldiers. In April 2002, he created a Guantanamo Bay “exploitation draft plan” to provide SERE training to Guantanamo interrogators under his direction. He proposed the creation of an “exploitation facility” at Guantanamo that would be “off limits to non-essential personnel,” such as the press, the International Committee of the Red Cross, or foreign observers. He advised that “the “the only restricting factor” on what techniques interrogators ought to be permitted to employ “should be the Torture Convention,” though he defended the use of physical force in interrogations. He repeated that message to interrogators and Guantanamo officials throughout 2002.

The influence of Jessen and SERE was not limited to military interrogations. In July 2002, the Senate report discloses, he was sent to “another government agency” to offer advice; and a JPRA team assisted a squad from “another government agency” during the first six months of 2002 that would be “sent to interrogate a high level al Qaeda operative.” “Another government agency” is a widespread euphemism for the CIA. The month after Jessen went to advise the undisclosed agency, the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel issued a secret memorandum, disclosed last week, instructing the CIA as to what interrogation techniques it considered to fall short of statutory prohibitions on torture. It summarized what the CIA proposed for its interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, considered to be the highest-ranking al-Qaeda member in U.S. custody. “Zubaydah will have contact only with a new interrogation specialist, whom he has not met previously, and the Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape (“SERE”) training psychologist who has been involved with the interrogations since they began,” wrote Jay Bybee, the head of OLC, in an August 1, 2002 memorandum. It is unclear but likely that Jessen is the psychologist to which Bybee refers.

JPRA and SERE officials thought of themselves as a unique trove of information and training for U.S. interrogators. The report quotes one official as saying, “JPRA has the sole repository of the required skill set” for interrogating detainees, even though the FBI has interrogated criminals for over 100 years. At an interrogation training session in the summer of 2002, with Guantanamo officials present, SERE officials “drafted a memo proposing the use of physical and psychological pressures at [Guantanamo], including some pressures … that do not follow the Geneva Conventions,” according to the report.

Around that time, an aide to Pentagon chief lawyer Haynes, David Shiffrin, requested JPRA’s deputy commander to send him memoranda outlining what techniques SERE graduates had to endure. The response included “the facial slap, walling, the abdomen slap, use of water, the attention grab and stress positions.” One attached memo used the phrase “physical and/or psychological duress” interchangeably with “torture,” the report says.

By September 2002, Pentagon officials and Guantanamo interrogators had grown “frustrated” with their inability to collect as much useful intelligence from interrogations as they had expected from Guantanamo detainees, according to the report. A JPRA-sponsored training session for interrogators that month introduced the concept of exploiting “phobias” and playing off cultural sensitivities of Arabs and Muslims. JPRA instructor Joseph Witsch warned a superior, “We are out of our sphere when we begin to profess the proper ways to exploit these detainees,” but the training continued. Witsch later acknowledged to a Pentagon working group on interrogations, “The physical and psychological pressures we apply in training violate national and international laws. … I hope someone is explaining this to all these folks asking for our techniques and methodology!”

Several Pentagon officials were asking for precisely that. A “Behavioral Science Consultation Team” established at Guantanamo and in frequent contact with SERE advisers counseled a Guantanamo working group on whether the interrogators had “authorization to use interrogation approaches that had not been taught to interrogators” at the U.S. Army’s intelligence center and were not contained in its Field Manual on interrogations. One SERE adviser told the BSCT, “Bottom line: the likelihood that the use of physical pressures will increase the delivery of accurate information from a detainee is very low.” Yet the working group approved a decision — over some BSCT and SERE reservations — to recommend the use of expanded techniques on a high-value detainee named Mohammed al-Qatani that were “influenced by SERE,” according to the report.

That request went up through the chain of command in October, ultimately reaching Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in December 2002. The report documents Haynes’ ability to stop a review of the techniques’ legality by a legal adviser to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, after representatives of the uniformed military made it clear that they considered the techniques to be illegal. As has been documented in numerous Pentagon inquiries stretching back to 2004, Rumsfeld ultimately recommended in April 2003 the use of several extreme interrogation techniques, including stress positions, dietary manipulation, “long time standing” and other techniques that are now revealed to have originated from SERE. Similarly, while Rumsfeld declared that those techniques were applicable only to “military and civilian interrogators assigned to Joint Task Force Guantanamo Bay, Cuba,” the extreme pressure for intelligence in Iraq later that year sent Guantanamo Bay’s commander, Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, to Iraq, where he delivered a list of Guantanamo-approved techniques to the Iraq war commander, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, with the explicit instruction to “Gitmo-ize” intelligence operations. A 2004 report by former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger found that instruction to be a central cause of the torture at the Abu Ghraib detention facility in late 2003.

The release of the Senate Armed Services Committee report comes on the heels of Thursday’s disclosure of four long-secret Justice Department documents outlining CIA interrogation techniques. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the committee, explained in a statement that the two rounds of disclosure were coincidental. The Defense Department had been combing through the report since November 20 and only now approved it for release, Levin said, with some significant redactions of operational and other detail.

“The record established by the Committee’s investigation shows that senior officials sought out information on, were aware of training in, and authorized the use of abusive interrogation techniques,” Levin said. “Those senior officials bear significant responsibility for creating the legal and operational framework for the abuses. As the Committee report concluded, authorizations of aggressive interrogation techniques by senior officials resulted in abuse and conveyed the message that physical pressures and degradation were appropriate treatment for detainees in U.S. military custody.”

Kenzo Norman | Kenzo is a journalist-turned-marketer who is fascinated by how storytelling and targeted marketing can result in content that changes businesses. He is responsible for implementing inbound marketing strategies that help his clients raise brand awareness, generate leads, and gain new customers as an Account Executive. Jason enjoys reading on the beach, tracking down mono records, and playing guitar when he is not working.


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