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DoD Directive Used Duplicity to Hide Current Use of SERE Torture Techniques in Interrogations

Recent revelations about the content of a still secret Senate report on the CIA’s rendition, detention and interrogation program, which allowed for use of torture, highlight the use of techniques used by a little-known military department.

These techniques from the military’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape program (SERE) had been lifted from a mock-torture prison camp exercise used to inoculate U.S. prisoners against the effects of torture. Two military psychologists hired as contractors for the CIA allegedly helped form the CIA’s controversial “enhanced interrogation” program.

James Mitchell, one of the two psychologists, recently told The Guardian newspaper he could not talk about the specifics of the program due to a non-disclosure agreement, which carried “criminal and civil penalties” should he violate it. But the details of the program, used in slightly different forms by both the CIA and the Department of Defense have been examined in numerous press and governmental reports.

Currently, the use of SERE techniques is supposedly banned for use by both CIA and Defense Department interrogators.

But a key U.S. Defense Department directive rewritten only a month before Barack Obama was first elected President used a legalistically-carved definition for SERE techniques to hide the fact that important components of the SERE interrogation techniques that could amount to torture were still available to U.S. interrogators.

Procedures for “Control, Dependency, Compliance, and Cooperation”

In October 2008, only a few weeks after the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee finished the second of two hearings on Defense Department (DoD) torture of detainees in Guantanamo, Afghanistan and Iraq, the Pentagon released a new version of its directive on “DoD Intelligence Interrogations, Detainee Debriefings, and Tactical Questioning.”

The Senate hearings had focused on how after 9/11 SERE techniques had been turned into a proactive torture program to be used on prisoners captured by the military. The hearings (which produced a report in November 2008) documented how in December 2001, and on subsequent occasions, representatives from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s office approached officials at the Pentagon’s Joint Personnel and Recovery Agency (JPRA), which oversaw many of the military’s SERE programs, asking for assistance in using SERE techniques in interrogations. JPRA officials were more than willing to help.

According to the Senate report, SERE-derived techniques included “the facial slap, walling, the abdomen slap, use of water, the attention grasp, and stress positions,” in addition to “use of smoke, shaking and manhandling, cramped confinement, immersion in water or wetting down, and waterboarding.” Many of these techniques also were used by the CIA in its so-called “enhanced interrogation program,” but were not the subject of the Senate Armed Services Committee investigation. They are, however, said to be a key aspect of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s program.

Along with the techniques listed by SASC, a separate but complementary set of procedures included “tactics derived from JPRA SERE school lesson plans… designed to ‘induce control, dependency, complia[n]ce, and cooperation,’ including isolation or solitary confinement, induced physical weakness and exhaustion, degradation, conditioning, sensory deprivation, sensory overload, disruption of sleep and biorhythms, and manipulation of diet.”

These “control” techniques ultimately formed an essential part of the military’s post-9/11 detention and interrogation program. After the CIA’s “high-value detainees” were sent to Guantanamo in summer 2006, a new Army manual on interrogation introduced a special technique “restricted” to non-POW detainee “enemy combatants,” like those held at Guantanamo.

Titled “Separation” in Appendix M of the Army Field Manual 2-22.3 on interrogations, it was never one technique, but a collection of detention treatment procedures meant to disorient and break down prisoners using a combination of isolation (solitary confinement), modified forms of sleep deprivation and sensory deprivation, in addition to dietary and environmental manipulations, so long as they were not deemed “extreme.”

Yet the new interrogation techniques were so rough they required the presence of medical professionals, “in the event a medical emergency occurs,” according to the manual.

Scandal Leads to SERE “Ban”

Possibly in reaction to the Senate investigation and the wide press coverage of SERE-derived abuse and torture by the military, the new version of the Department of Defense directive on intelligence interrogations introduced in October 2008 now included a prohibition on the use of SERE techniques by military. The news was quickly reported.

One prominent news agency reported, “Pentagon bans SERE interrogation techniques.” Steven Aftergood, writing for Secrecy News, part of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy, noted that by the supposed banning of SERE techniques the directive “closes loopholes in detainee interrogation policy.”

But a close reading of the DoD directive, numbered 3115.09, shows that only a portion of the SERE techniques were banned, even though the document clearly states, “Use of SERE techniques against a person in the custody or effective control of the DoD or detained in a DoD facility is prohibited.”

But back in 2008, no one noticed the military’s sleight-of-hand regarding use of the controversial SERE techniques. The deception was hidden in the “Definitions” section of the directive, where “SERE techniques” are defined in the document as “Those techniques used by SERE school instructors that are not authorized in Reference (i) for use as intelligence interrogation techniques” (emphasis added).

Reference (i) refers to the Army Field Manual, the interrogation manual authorized by President Barack Obama’s Executive Order 13491 to be the standard for all Department of Defense and CIA interrogations.


The Pentagon maintains the fiction that SERE techniques were prohibited. A 2010 DoD Inspector General report found the military had followed recommendations from an earlier military report on “detainee abuse” to eliminate the SERE techniques. In particular, the 2010 Defense Department report concluded the current version of the Army Field Manual “does not authorize the use of any SERE techniques as approved intelligence interrogation techniques.”

In fact, the Army Field Manual utilizes techniques of interrogation that many human rights and legal groups have described as torture or cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment of prisoners. The techniques involved — use of isolation, sleep deprivation (no more than 4 hours sleep per night), partial sensory deprivation, manipulation of fears, inducing hopelessness, diet and environmental manipulation, etc. — sound very much if not exactly like those SERE school lesson plans designed to induce control, dependency and compliance described in the Senate investigation into SERE-like torture of detainees.

While the military ultimately did ban certain techniques, like the use of “working dogs” to scare detainees, the use of hooding, and manipulation of phobias by Behavioral Science Consultants used in interrogations (nothing was said about manipulation of such phobias by interrogators), as DoD Directive 3115.09 makes clear, not all the SERE techniques actually were banned or prohibited.

Last February, Secretary of Defense Public Affairs spokesman, Lt. Col. J. Todd Breasseale, reiterated to this author the military’s position that the Army Field Manual relies on humane and legal procedures.

“The United States is committed to ensuring that individuals detained in any armed conflict are treated humanely in all circumstances, consistent with U.S. treaty obligations, domestic law, and policy, whenever such individuals are in the custody or under the effective control of the U.S. government,” Breasseale said. “The Army Field Manual does not authorize or condone the use of sleep manipulation or sensory deprivation.”

While, when asked, Breasseale did not deny the presence of some SERE techniques in the Army Field Manual, he stated, “It’s worth noting that nothing in Appendix M could be read or used in such a way as to defeat those generally applicable principles and guidelines.”

Breasseale also referred to criteria in the manual that is meant to guide interrogators as to whether a particular interrogation “approach” is prohibited.

A SASC staffer, when asked about the loophole allowing SERE techniques in the Army Field Manual, told this author in an April 11 email, “We are comfortable that Appendix M of the Army Field Manual no longer permits the use of interrogation techniques that are cruel and inhuman, or are a violation of our obligations under international law.”

But a leading human rights expert demurred. Leonard Rubenstein, who was co-author of a recent report by the Institute on Medicine as a Profession condemning the use of medical professionals in abusive interrogations, told this author, “Almost a decade after revelations of torture of detainees at Abu Ghraib, it is disturbing that some of the interrogation methods at the center of the abuse and condemned by an independent medical task force continued to be authorized at the highest level of the U.S. military.“

Psychologist Bradley Olson, former president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, criticized the deceptive way DoD handled the supposed SERE ban.

“When it comes to torture, more than any other area, the devil is in the details,” Olson said. “Any attempt to pretend SERE techniques are prohibited while opening the door with Appendix M of the Army Field Manual is nothing but a contradiction, and a deceptive and dangerous one at that.”

Clapper’s Role

In a link to the scandal over NSA surveillance, Directive 3115.09 was promulgated under the leadership of then-Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, James R. Clapper, Jr. Clapper, who is now Director of National Intelligence, famously lied to Congress in testimony in June 2013 about the extent of NSA spying on Americans.

According to former “master” SERE instructor Captain (ret.) Michael Kearns, who previously held high-ranking positions within the Air Force Headquarters Staff and Department of Defense, and who personally knew Bruce Jessen, one of the alleged proponents of the CIA’s torture program, the format of the directive shows that back in 2008 Clapper’s office had “the initiating level of responsibility” for the directive.

Kearns said the policy promulgated was “enforced at the Deputy level.” The original version of the document itself was signed by Gordon England, then Acting Deputy Secretary of Defense.

But the policy on SERE techniques has not changed since the Bush presidency. The DoD’s most recent version of the directive, effective as of November 15, 2013, still carries the defining exception regarding SERE techniques used in the Army Field Manual.

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Jeff Kaye

Jeff Kaye

Jeffrey Kaye is a retired psychologist who has worked professionally with torture victims and asylum applicants. Active in the anti-torture movement since 2006, he has his own blog, Invictus, previously wrote regularly for Firedoglake’s The Dissenter, as well as at The Guardian, Truthout, Alternet, and The Public Record. He is the author of Cover-Up at Guantanamo, a new book examining declassified files on treatment of prisoners at the Guantanamo detention camp.