PTSD “Service Connected” to SERE Torture Techniques, Despite Yoo, Bybee Denials
In the August 2, 2002 memo to John Rizzo at the CIA, “Interrogation of an Al Qaeda Operative,” written primarily by John Yoo and signed by Jay Bybee (PDF), a number of statements are made as regards the relative safety of the SERE training program for use on U.S. soldiers. As most readers must know by now, SERE stands for Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape, and the program of the same name is used to teach pilots, Special Operations personnel, “code of conduct” behaviors and strategies should they ever be captured by an enemy force. The Resistance component provides an exposure experience, where trainees are subjected to mock torture with the idea that familiarity with possible torture techniques will harden them should they ever be presented with the real thing.
It was this mock torture component, as taught in SERE classes SV-83 and SV-91 (the latter class aimed specifically at teaching clandestine “Special Mission Units”), that was reverse-engineered by military psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, and further fine-tuned by CIA officials, and constituted the torture that was used at CIA (and possibly JSOC) black site prisons under the rubric of “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Subsequently, physicians and psychologists at the CIA’s Office of Medical Services were used to provide “opinions to the agency and [OLC] lawyers whether the techniques used would be expected to cause severe pain or suffering and thus constitute torture.”
In a series of recent articles, I’ve pointed out Yoo, Bybee, and later Office of Legal Counsel attorney Stephen Bradbury, disregarded internal SERE documents related to the safety of waterboarding. Now we can add the suppression of complaints by SERE trainees of having contracted PTSD from participation in SERE training. This directly contradicts the Yoo/Bybee contention in the Aug. 2, 2002 memo to Rizzo, where they wrote, “Through your [i.e., CIA] consultation with various individuals responsible for such training, you have learned that these techniques have been used as elements of a course of conduct without any reported incident of prolonged mental harm.”
Yet it shouldn’t have taken too long to know, and certainly JPRA officials should have been aware of complaints made by various enlisted personnel such that they had incurred PTSD as a result of their “service connection” to SERE training. One such complaint, made as far back as 1999, received approval of disability status for PTSD by the Veterans Administration in July 2003. The decision regarded an appeal of a 2000 decision against a veteran claiming PTSD. The serviceman, who had retired in 1996, was represented by the American Legion.
After review of the appeal, it was found that “The veteran has a current diagnosis of PTSD associated with experiences he suffered as part of his in-service SERE training.” [cont’d.]
The veteran’s December 1999 claim relates that he attended SERE training in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in 1992. During the training, he was subject to interrogations, stripping down, mockery, assault, and exposure to extreme weather conditions. The veteran’s February 2000 statement, as well as the January 2003 testimony at the Travel Board hearing, further describes physical assault and interrogations with emotional abuse he experienced during the SERE course. The Board finds the veteran’s hearing testimony to be credible and probative.
The decision has even more power when one considers that there was other evidence indicating that there were other sources of possible traumatic experience, e.g., childhood abuse. But the judge at the Board of Veteran’s Appeals found that the PTSD from SERE training was the actionable occurrence. Also, note that the veteran’s experience at SERE did not include the waterboard, as only the Navy SERE schools used the waterboard in their training, even as far back as 1992.
The military has a scandalous history of denying PTSD claims. In a 2007 article by Joshua Kors at The Nation, doctors admitted to feeling pressured to not diagnose PTSD, and instead, soldiers with PTSD were receiving diagnoses of personality disorders, or otherwise denied PTSD claims. Last month, the Obama administration loosened VA rules on determination of PTSD, which will not now rely so heavily on proving a specific event caused the condition.
Yoo himself apparently believed that PTSD constituted “prolonged mental harm” of the sort that is labeled torture. He said as much in his March 2003 OLC memo to William Haynes at the Department of Defense on the interrogation methods at DoD (PDF).
“…the development of a mental disorder such as posttraumatic stress disorder, which can last months or even years, or even chronic depression, which also can last for a considerable period of time if untreated, might satisfy the prolonged harm requirement.”
Yoo’s 2003 memo closely followed the reasoning of his earlier memos, though later, then-OLC head Jack Goldsmith told Haynes to disregard the Yoo memo in December 2003. It is not clear what DoD relied on for legal advice as regards their interrogation program after that point (for more, see this article by Marcy Wheeler).
Despite the SASC report into “detainee” abuse, released last year, much of the involvement by DoD actors and entities in the torture program remains highly obscure. Jason Leopold and I are working on a major investigative story to be published in the weeks ahead regarding the Bush torture program, and Department of Defense research and experimentation into interrogations and torture.