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

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July 2, 2008

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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