On Monday, I described the years-long controversy within the military services over the use of waterboarding in SERE training, which left the Navy SERE school in North Island, California the last remaining survival school to use the technique on its students. The executive authority for SERE, the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency, had argued for its elimination as as an unsafe technique with deleterious psychological and possibly physiological consequences upon trainees, causing them to be “psychologically defeated.” The North Island school ended use of waterboarding in November 2007.
In the May 10, 2005 “techniques” memorandum by Steven Bradbury to CIA Senior Deputy Counsel, John Rizzo, Bradbury mentioned the waterboarding issue at the SERE schools, in a footnote (H/T Marcy Wheeler). “We understand that the waterboard is currently used only in Navy SERE training,” Bradbury wrote. He explained that the CIA Inspector General report on the Agency’s interrogation program mentioned that “individuals with authoritative knowledge of the SERE program” believed that waterboarding had been excluded from most of the SERE schools “because of its dramatic effect on the students who were subjects.”
Despite the presence of this unexplained “dramatic effect,” Bradbury continued:
We understand that use of the waterboard was discontinued by the other services not because of any concerns about physical or mental harm, but because students were not successful at resisting the technique, and, as such, it was not considered to be a useful training technique.
Bradbury received his assurances from the CIA’s Office of Medical Services (OMS), who he quotes as saying “[w]hile SERE trainers believe that trainees are unable to maintain psychological resistance to the waterboard, our experience was otherwise.” OMS soothingly assures that “Some subjects can unquestionably withstand a large number of applications,” with no harm greater than a “strong aversion to the experience.” The testimony of the “SERE trainers” is blithely brushed aside, and no questions are asked about what it means to be “unable to maintain psychological resistance.”
Even more, Bradbury and OMS’s assurances don’t correspond with the evidence from JPRA internal documents, which describe the use of waterboarding as leaving students “psychologically defeated” and impaired in the ability to develop “psychological hardiness.” Furthermore, as a Truthout article last month notes, the discontinuance of waterboarding was not due to mere failure at resistance to the technique. They were finding measures of physiological harm.
The Navy SERE school in Brunswick, Maine, discontinued the use of waterboarding in its training curriculum after a SERE psychologist found via “empirical medical data … elevated levels of cortisol in the brain stem caused by stress levels incurred during water boarding.” Cortisol is a stress hormone released by the adrenal glands as part of the body’s fight-or-flight mechanisms. Excess cortisol can lead to chronic stress, impaired cognitive abilities, thyroid problems, suppressed immune functioning, high blood pressure, and other health problems.
The origins of misinformation about waterboarding go back to the original Yoo/Bybee memos in August 2002. Emptywheel has been following the story around the machinations surrounding the composition of these memos pretty closely (see here, and here, and here). In the memo to Rizzo on the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, John Yoo writes:
With respect to the waterboard, you have also orally informed us that the Navy continues to use it in training. You have informed us that your on-site psychologists, who have extensive experience with the use of the waterboard in Navy training, have not encountered any significant long-term mental health consequences from its use…. JPRA has likewise not reported any significant long-term mental health consequences from the use of the waterboard.
Yoo explains the cessation of waterboarding training as due to the fact “it was so successful as an interrogation technique,” and not because of any concerns over harm from its use. This is, we know now, plainly not the case. Is it any surprise that the Navy SERE psychologists clung to their use of waterboarding, and that Yoo and the CIA found a willing group of practitioners to give them the fairy tale story they desired? The use of anecdotal statements from biased participants does not add up to due diligence or reliance on experts.
In fact, no long-term study on the effects of waterboarding, or SERE techniques in general, has ever been made, or at least made public. If there were such a study, and its results backed the contentions of Yoo and the CIA, you can be sure we would have heard of it. Instead, we have the statements of JPRA professionals that the use of waterboarding in SERE training was risky, potentially dangerous, and produced a condition known as “learned helplessness.” My next article will expand on what the dangers of learned helplessness entail from a psychological and physiological standpoint.
Next: “Learned Helplessness” and the waterboard