“Targets of Opportunity”: Corruption, Contractors, and the Origins of the SERE Torture Program

Leon Panetta’s latest filing in the ACLU FOIA lawsuit had this curious revelation:

Officials of the National Security Council (NSC) determined it… essential to limit access to the information in the program. NSC officials established a special access program governing access to information relating to the CIA terrorist detention and interrogation program…. The name of the special access program is itself classified SECRET.

In other words, the sensitive nature of what was the implementation of the CIA’s "Enhanced Interrogation Techniques," or torture program, was so extreme that it required a specially secret program all of its own to hide it from prying eyes. Regular safety mechanisms and classifications were deemed insufficient.

While Panetta’s denial of documentation can be seen as an effort to hide the extent of the CIA’s torture, and the identities of those who ordered the torture, it can also be understood as an effort to shield not just the identities of interrogators and torturers, but of a complex web of interconnected agencies and relationships, which, if traced back to its origins, would reveal the origins of the torture program itself. The genesis of Mitchell-Jessen is rooted in the ongoing world of clandestine warfare, special operations, and the use of contractors to both provide deniability, and to enable a coterie of military and ex-military and intelligence officials to enrich themselves at the taxpayers’ benefit.

As one source, who wishes to remain anonymous, but has some knowledge of the individuals active in this arena, stated to me (emphasis added):

Understand, this resistance training ‘mafia’ goes deep into the "Black" world of training Special Operations Forces like Navy Seals, Army Rangers, Army Delta, et cetera, all of which must successfully complete their resistance training to become fully qualified Special Operators. Thus, they feel and act like elitists. 

For years the training of U.S. special forces, Air Force officers, and ultimately many other military personnel, who might be in danger of capture by hostile forces, was done by various "survival schools" run by the different armed services. These SERE [Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape] schools were mostly autonomous. Finally they were to be united in a Joint  Service SERE Agency (JSSA) in the early 1990s. This agency later assumed responsibility for all prisoner recovery planning and operations. For reasons that are unclear, the agency was reshaped in 1999 as the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA).  JPRA was to be, in part, an umbrella organization for SERE, but it also had its own Operations, Intelligence, and even Experimental divisions. The Operations directorate (J3) also runs JPRA’s Assessments Directorate (AD), which one ex-JPRA member told me was "a discrete part of the agency that is involved with experimentation and special projects (and which has their own small Intel shop)."

Today, according to one news article, "the Survival School’s SERE specialists now train U.S. Coalition forces including British, Canadian and Australian military personnel." Twenty thousand personnel a year reportedly attend the SERE school annually.

Over time, a larger and larger part of JPRA staffing was filled by contractors. This became especially true after 9/11 and the announcement of a "war on terror." JPRA’s largest contractor is Tate, Incorporated, based in Virginia. Its website states (emphasis in original):

TATE, Incorporated was founded in 1994 to provide support to the high-risk operator, specifically focusing on personnel recovery. With approximately 400 employees, TATE is now the nation’s leading contractor providing Personnel Recovery (PR) plans and operations, Peacetime Governmental Detention (PGD), Hostage Detention (HD), and other sensitive training support to the U.S. government. TATE’s current customers include the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Army, Defense Intelligence Agency, and other governmental agencies….

Our background in Special Operations and Personnel Recovery training uniquely positions us to provide a comprehensive range of assessment and selection tools, survival techniques, and experience-based training for service members and government personnel. 

According to ProPublica journalist Sheri Fink, Mitchell, Jessen and Associates was recently discovered to have decamped from their Spokane headquarters, and currently share an address with Tate, Inc. in Alexandria, VA. But this isn’t the first time the two have been connected. Tate president, David M. Ayers, was listed by Washington State Corporations Division as one of four "governing persons" for the Mitchell-Jessen LLC. Then there’s Tate’s Director of Training, Roger Aldrich, who was yet another "governing person" for Mitchell-Jessen. Other reports have placed other SERE psychologists besides Mitchell and Jessen as employees for Tate, Inc. Back at JPRA, the TATE employees running around the various departments were referred to derisively as "TaterTots."

The farther one goes with these contractor connections, the denser the thicket. Randall Spivey is president of another private contracting firm working with survival/recovery training, RS Consulting, whose offices are in the same Spokane office building where Mitchell-Jessen long resided. Spivey was the fourth of the primary figures at M-J. According to an announcement for a 2004 special event at the National Hostage Survival Training Center (run by RS Consulting), Spivey and Aldrich, the main speakers, are said to have a combined "53 years of experience with the Department of Defense." One could go on and on documenting this incestuous web of interconnections.

With all this training, there must be a lot of money sloshing around, and there is. While we have only little idea of how much money Mitchell-Jessen, for instance, were making, we do have a very good picture of Tate’s finances. According to the website,, in 2001, Tate, Inc. was paid only $26,669 for its services to the Air Force. Only a year later, in a single contract for "education and training services," Tate was awarded $869,699. In 2003, Tate raked in $2,068,000; in 2004, $1450,972; and by 2007, having switched to servicing the Army, not the Air Force, Tate received $7,686,525 in government contracting money.

Still, this is not the full story. One of Tate’s vendors, "Martin Ayres Research Corporation, DBA MARC Corporation" shares the same address as Tate, and one award lists Tate as MARC’s parent company. Yet the Tate website says Tate was once a division of the MARC Corporation. (Could Martin Ayers be related to David Ayers, Tate President?) This kind of squirrelly information/disinformation is redolent of what shadowy proprietors for the CIA have looked like over the years. One outcome of spreading the money to different entities, who seem to amount to the same people, is that in 2002, MARC was awarded $1,764,529, which, when added to Tate’s contracting awards for that year, presents a different picture about how much money was being funnelled to this primary SERE contractor.

Without a doubt, there’s a lot of cash available for the business-minded, and some ex-JPRA personnel have been critical of the blurring of the boundaries between the military organization and civilian contractors. JPRA/SERE military officers would resign to become civilian employees of the Air Force, where they could now make between $75,000 and $150,000 per year, plus benefits. One former JPRA employee described the agency as "a closed community of hiring among old SERE/Pararescue community cronies, such that a military member of JPRA can retire on a Friday and come back to work on the Monday as a Tate contractor and a substantially higher salary." Certain officers have been accused of building "empires" of loyal flunkies, as the officer has the power to hire the old military employee at higher civil service wages, or even slide some contracting business their way some day.

No wonder there seems to be a plethora of small-time contracting agencies, like Spivey’s RS Consulting, or  Sere Solutions, Inc., or James Mitchell’s first foray into the field, Knowledge Works, which he ran with an Army Special Operations Psychologist, Lt. Colonel John C. Chin. In 2001, Chin gave an interview to Psychology Online Journal, and described for outsiders what kind of operations all these agencies and contractors were up to (link available only in cached form — emphasis added to quote):

There are several types of debriefings that we use in Special Operations. We debrief Special Operations soldiers after they’ve been in an operational environment. We do critical incidence stress debriefs. In addition, at times, we are involved in debriefing targets of opportunity, that is, individuals who have information relevant to the types of operations that we are about to undertake….

Today about twelve percent of the psychologists in the army are Special Operations Psychologist. We are involved in the assessment and selection of personnel for special missions units as well as training, research, and organizational development.

"Targets of opportunity" is a term used on the battlefield for enemy forces that opportunistically arise in the course of operations. Debriefing here begins to look very suspiciously like active interrogation. Lt. Col. Chin is careful to assure us that rapport methods of interrogation are used, and de rigeur adherence to the Geneva Conventions — and perhaps that was the case in early 2001, when this interview was given. (The insistence on following Geneva is a tip-off that more than interviews of repatriated or rescued military personnel is taking place.)

 At a hearing before the Senate Armed Service Committee last year, the former director of intelligence at JPRA’s Personnel Recovery Academy, Colonel Steven Kleinman, described the changes the post-9/11 "war on terror" wrought. Describing the actions of Special Operations forces in Afghanistan (and likely other countries) in late 2001 and early 2002, where young and reportedly inexperienced interrogators quickly found themselves in over their heads (emphases added), he stated:

From the beginning, there was incredible pressure placed on interrogators to elicit actionable information—we can define that as information that operators can act upon within a 24- to 48-hour cycle—from almost every individual that we took into custody. And some of these detainees were complicit, and some were innocent. Some were truly knowledgeable, and some were truly clueless. But, nonetheless, we erred in simply pressing interrogation and interrogators beyond the edge of the envelope. And, as a result, interrogation as no longer an intelligence collection method; rather, in many cases it had morphed into a form of punishment for those who would not cooperate….

Nonetheless, the intelligence shortfall continued, and operational commanders demanded more intelligence.

The resourceful special operations community, to which I’m assigned right now, sought, then, solutions outside the intelligence community. With their clear memories of their experiences during intensive resistance to interrogation exercises that are a key part of SERE training, their search led them to the cadre of very talented survival instructors, who demonstrated exceptional skill in conducting interrogations using the high pressure, often threatening tactic deployed by countries that were not signatories to the Geneva Convention. These special operators were understandably impressed by the ability of these instructors to compel compliance with both force and subterfuge.

To the nonintelligence officer, the transfer of SERE methods from the training environment to real-world operations seemed a logical option.

And who were these nonintelligence officers? Generals like Brigadier General Thomas Moore of Joint Forces Command, who was to sign off on many of the SERE trainings, from DIA to notorious Task Force 121’s "black room" torture chamber at Camp Nama, Iraq. Or perhaps the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers, who, in late October or early November 2002, shut down his own legal counsel’s investigation into the abuse potential of the SERE-proposed "exploitation" plan at Guantanamo, leading to Rumsfeld’s signing off on most of the torture techniques only weeks later.

I cannot pretend to have drawn all the dots of this mess together. I’d like to say some more about the role of the CIA in all this. I’d like to put together what now seems a plausible theory of how the Mitchell-Jessen torture plan was proposed and then implemented. For instance, it seems highly likely, for reasons beyond what I’ve discussed in this article, that either Spivey or Aldrich or Ayers, or some combination of the three, were intimately involved in developing Mitchell and Jessen’s torture plan; after all, back at JPRA, Spivey and Aldrich, at least, were Mitchell and Jessen’s superiors. But today they are safely ensconced in a new security company with former top FBI personnel, while Mitchell and Jessen get all the attention. But this must wait for future installments.

For now, it is important to consider that a major line of Bush administration pressure — perhaps the major transmission belt of Bush administration pressure to implement torture — went through the military, and found a ready, willing, and corruptible mob in the interlocking milieus of intelligence, survival/rescue, military psychologist and special operations organizations, who along with careerist officers in the various military commands, were able and willing to accommodate their new masters in the Oval Office… for a price.

Special thanks to Michael Otterman at American Torture for assistance in researching this material.

Exit mobile version