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SERE, CIA, and Stress Positions as Sleep Deprivation

So in my piece today I wondered how it could be that the CIA could come to view stress positions as a mechanism to induce sleep deprivation in detainees. The obvious culprit is the Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) program, because in the May 10, 2005 “techniques” memo, then-Office of Legal Counsel chief Steve Bradbury wrote that the CIA’s “techniques have all been imported from military Survival, Evasion, Resistance Escape (‘SERE’) training.” But according to a former SERE instructor I asked, that doesn’t seem likely.

You remember Malcolm Nance, right? He’s a longtime counterterrorist who taught Navy Special Forces in the ways of SERE and testified before Congress in 2007 about what waterboarding was and wasn’t. (His short answer: it’s unambiguously torture.) I asked him in an email how the SERE subjected its students to sleep deprivation. “By definition,” Nance said, “SERE is sleep deprivation” because “we are wailing on you nonstop.” When it came to the technique itself, he continued, “We used simple sleep deprivation techniques like lights, music, horrible noise, work and, if we need[ed] to, hold[ing] a student up.” Not stress positions — unless you define the entire program as sleep deprivation.

SERE training wouldn’t* * involve subjecting a soldier, sailor or airman to these techniques for prolonged periods. “Stress positions were designed to bring a student to a self induced pain and to get them to understand what prolonged standing and physical contortion was like,” Nance said. “None one did it for any length of time. That’s not the purpose of SERE.”

What’s more, sleep deprivation in SERE is a technique for troops to beat their interrogations, not become more compliant for them. “We want the student to feign an inability to stay awake,” Nance said. “We want sleep deprivation to occur so one cannot be subjected to questioning.” Why? Because when someone is forced to stay awake for too long, “he will say anything or gibberish,” which “really hurts the interrogator.” For the SERE program — which, remember, is about training U.S. troops how to defy their captors and torturers — that’s victory.

None of that proves that SERE wasn’t the basis for CIA’s stress-positions-as-sleep-deprivation regimen. But if SERE instructors and officials reverse-engineered their program to *keep someone awake *for extended periods, either they didn’t understand that sleep deprivation is bad for acquiring information or they were interested in extracting false confessions. This is all back to the point that SERE trainers are not interrogators, and considering SERE training to be about extracting quality intelligence is to commit a category error. And apparently the CIA committed it.

This is the final paragraph of what Khalid Shaikh Mohammed told the International Committee of the Red Cross:

During the harshest period of my interrogation I gave a lot of false information in order to satisfy what I believed the interrogators wished to hear in order to make the ill-treatment stop. I later told the interrogators that their methods were stupid and counterproductive. I’m sure that the false information I was forced to invent in order to make the ill-treatment stop wasted a lot of their time and led to several false red-alerts being placed in the U.S.

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