The Origins of SERE, and Using Torture Even When It Doesn't Work

The New York Times' Scott Shane revealed today that the torture and interrogation techniques used at Guantánamo Bay were copied nearly verbatim from a 1957 Air Force study done on interrogation techniques used by the Chinese military during the Korean War against captured American soldiers. Those techniques elicited FALSE confessions—again, no surprise given the many detainees tortured later who admit that they would say anything just to make the torture stop.

The study, written by Air Force sociologist Albert D. Biderman called “Communist Attempts to Elicit False Confessions From Air Force Prisoners of War,” outlines several interrogation methods recently used at Guantanamo, including exposure to extreme temperatures, sleep deprivation, and threats of death against the prisoner and his family.

This report is also what led to the birth of SERE tactics:

Those orchestrated confessions [by Chinese interrogators] led to allegations that the American prisoners had been ‘brainwashed,’ and provoked the military to revamp its training to give some military personnel a taste of the enemies’ harsh methods to inoculate them against quick capitulation if captured.

In 2002, the training program, known as SERE, for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape, became a source of interrogation methods both for the C.I.A. and the military. In what critics describe as a remarkable case of historical amnesia, officials who drew on the SERE program appear to have been unaware that it had been created as a result of concern about false confessions by American prisoners. (emphasis ours)

We know that SERE tactics were used in Afghanistan as well. In April, in response to our Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, the Department of Defense released more than 500 pages of documents recounting the torture, abuse and even death of detainees in U.S. custody overseas.

Setting aside the ethical arguments against torture, a simple question remains: If the military knew these interrogation tactics elicited false confessions and useless information, then why bother?

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DJ Rick

"If the military knew these interrogation tactics elicited false confessions and useless information, then why bother?"

Because they don’t "elicited false confessions and useless information". Sure, after being water boarded KSM might have said anything, but he would have said anything even if less harsh tactics were used. Any information gathered during any type of interrogation is not taken at face value. Rather it is judged and validated against known information and used to either corroborate what is already suspected or known and used as leads on new information gotten via interrogations.

The "false confessions" of US POW's was used primarily for propaganda purposes and not intelligence value.

Not that something like facts should stand in the way of a good ACLU rant.


The SERE school was founded after Vietnam by Colonel Nick Rowe, a Special Forces officer that had spent five years in captivity from 1963 to 1968.

He created the school not so much because of concern about false confessions, but because he wanted to teach future Special Forces soldiers how to cope with the methods of interrogation that would be used against them.

The SERE school has done a lot of good in training soldiers how to resist interrogation and find methods of escape, however, those same methods should not be used against prisoners in our custody.


Anonymous Says:
July 2nd, 2008 at 6:35 pm

I second this as a graduate of the Navy's SERE school I can attest to the valuable knowledge attained from this course. It was designed to give Pilots, Aircrews, Special Forces units an idea of what to expect and how to deal with he possibility of being caught behind enemy lines and imprisonment. The main concepts I took away is that every man has a breaking point and no information obtained under duress is valuable if it can't be verified. BTW I was waterboarded several times in the camp and I don't consider it painful or torture. But then again I was just an elisted grunt.


Torture is a very subjective term. What is unbearable to some is just a walk in the park for most. If you are weak you will fold under any type pressure put to bear upon you, if you are not them you will do well being a captive. If you want to know real torture, come see me, I know things that will really work, the first time.

Tom Head

Come on, Vern, Hancock wasn't _that_ bad.

Re the question asked at the end of this article, I would be remiss if I didn't share my blog entry what the Bush administration's rationale might have been. Not an excuse, mind you, just a rationale.


Perhaps the author ought to stick to writing puff pieces about New Years eve parties since actual research into the origins of SERE training seem to be beyond her grasp.


DJ Rick's trust in his Leaders is touching. Of course we had a word for that in the 1930's. DJ is quite confident that They used torture to elicit false confessions for propaganda value, but We of course would never do such a thing -- We are only after getting Intelligence from Terrorists.

Sarah, in her haste to dismiss the blog post, obviously hasn't noticed, or bothered to read, the NYT story by Scott Shane that Suzanne Ito quoted and linked to. You know, the article with supporting documents and quotes and stuff. So she claims that Ito should "stick to puff pieces" and ignores the supporting evidence for Ito's post. Brilliant thinking, Sarah!

And of course, real interrogators -- from Col. John Rothrick (USAF ret.) Col. Stuart Herrington (USA) to Jack Cloonan (FBI special agent, OBL unit, 1996-2002), to the thirty US military officers (all with rank of Brigadier General or higher) who wrote a letter to Congress last December denouncing torture and advocating for the provision that all interrogations follow Army Field Manual procedures -- have all confirmed that torture is ineffective for obtaining real, accurate, timely, actionable intelligence.

But don't let that stop the DJ Ricks and Sarahs of the world.

As for why some in the administration would bother with torture when they know it's of negligible intelligence value but only elicits false confessions, the answer is simple. They want the false confessions.

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