It would be easier to believe that American abuse of detainees in Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and Afghanistan was the work of a few rogue interrogators if it didn’t have a pattern. But if the abuse is spontaneous and uncoordinated, how come it always seems to involve hoods? In “The Experiment” (not online) in this week’s New Yorker, Jane Mayer solves the mystery. Waterboarding, stripping, extreme cold and extreme heat, sleep deprivation, “noise stress,” sexual ridicule, desecration of religious symbols, manipulation of national flags, and hoods are all techniques practiced in a classified Pentagon program called SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape), launched at the end of the Korean War to train American soldiers to resist torture.
“After September 11th,” Mayer writes, “several psychologists versed in SERE techniques began advising interrogators at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere. . . . Interrogators and BSCT members [Behavioral Science Consultation Teams, also known as ‘Biscuits’] at Guantanamo adopted coercive techniques similar to those employed in the SERE program.” A scientist connected with the program told Mayer that graduates now have to promise in writing not to use the techniques they learn at SERE on detainees: “We did this when we learned people were flipping it.” (Exit horse; the barn door shuts.)
It’s amazing journalism; many puzzle pieces now fall into place. It’s also chilling. Mayer describes a military psychologist from SERE who allegedly advised U.S. interrogators to reduce a detainee to the condition of a dog in a psychology experiment shocked so many times that when untied it no longer shies away from further shocks. Perhaps it’s time to stop worrying that comparisons to Nazi Germany might be alarmist. What else should such a mindset be compared to?