The Military Banned Waterboarding Trainees Because It Was Too Brutal — And Never Announced It

Torture apologists cite the military's use of waterboarding trainees in defense of Gina Haspel, Trump's nominee for CIA director. One problem: The military stopped that training in 2007.

WASHINGTON — For years, the U.S. military used waterboarding, a centuries-old torture technique, to train American troops to resist interrogation if captured. Torture apologists have long cited this fact in defense of the CIA’s past use of torture to interrogate terrorist suspects.

Now Gina Haspel, a veteran CIA officer who reportedly oversaw a secret prison where an alleged terrorist was waterboarded, is President Donald Trump’s pick to become the next director of the agency — and some of her supporters are again citing the military’s use of waterboarding to defend her. Bush-era “enhanced interrogation” techniques “were the same as those used on our own people,” Liz Cheney, a Republican congresswoman and the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, tweeted in defense of Haspel earlier this month.

Here’s what Cheney, and other torture apologists, don’t mention — and perhaps don’t know: By 2002, several branches of the military had backed away from using waterboarding in training — and in November 2007, the Pentagon quietly banned it altogether.

The military decided waterboarding “provided no instructional or training benefit to the student,” Thomas Crosson, a Department of Defense spokesman, told HuffPost in an email. Crosson declined to release the 2007 directive forbidding the practice, citing classification issues. The existence of the document has not been previously reported, and HuffPost has requested a copy of it under the Freedom of Information Act.

The military’s decision made sense, veteran military interrogator and intelligence officer Steven Kleinman told HuffPost. Waterboarding “teaches failure,” he said. “No one succeeds. They can’t teach a strategy during that. Literally, it was absolutely so painful.”

The Pentagon never publicly announced the internal decision. Crosson didn’t explain why, but people who have been through the survival training program that once included waterboarding, known as Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape, or SERE, told HuffPost that the military is intentionally opaque about the program’s curriculum so students arrive without knowing what to expect.

The program is supposed to push trainees close to their limits ― but not actually break them. SERE alumni told HuffPost they were slapped, slammed into a wall, deprived of sleep, and hosed with water outside in the middle of winter while instructors posing as interrogators tried to get them to give up information. The goal is to teach members of the military how to survive similar treatment at the hands of the enemy. Unlike an actual torture session, SERE students know their “captors” won’t kill them, and they have access to mental health professionals. SERE instructors examine students’ medical records and adjust the training accordingly. Students also know they can ask for the torture stop. But if a student taps out, they risk failing the training, former students told HuffPost.

Abu Zubaydah, the CIA’s torture guinea pig, was waterboarded 83 times at a CIA prison in Thailand. Haspel, Trump’s nominee for CIA director, began running the prison in Thailand after Zubaydah’s interrogation. Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, an al Qaeda suspect accused of bombing the USS Cole, was reportedly waterboarded three times after Haspel arrived at the prison.

SERE students were typically waterboarded once, for less than a minute. And by 2002, the year Zubaydah was waterboarded, the practice was already prohibited at SERE schools run by the Army, Air Force, and Joint Personnel Recovery Agency, according to a 2008 Senate Armed Services Committee report.

The problem with waterboarding SERE students was that too many trainees broke, said James Mitchell, a psychologist who was deeply involved in SERE and later reverse-engineered it to develop the CIA’s torture program. “We thought it was too effective,” Mitchell wrote in a 2016 book defending his role in the CIA torture program. When members of the military were waterboarded, they “capitulated, even if it cost them their jobs,” Mitchell continued.

“The experience of torture at SERE surely plays a role in the minds of the graduates who go on to be interrogators, and it must on some level help them rationalize their actions. It’s not hard to imagine them thinking, ‘Well, if I survived this, then it’s OK to do it to this guy.’”

- David Morris, from a 2009 argument against waterboarding military trainees

There’s no doubt that waterboarding is an effective way to make people talk. But it’s not necessarily a reliable way to get people to tell the truth or give up valuable intelligence, according to Malcolm Nance, a retired interrogator.

“The entire [SERE] program is designed to show you how it doesn’t work,” Nance told HuffPost. “You will say whatever the interrogator wants you to say. The severity of it makes your mouth open — your desire to survive.”

That was part of why the military ultimately turned against the practice.

Instead of making trainees more resilient to brutal treatment, waterboarding “leaves students psychologically defeated with no ability to resist while under pressure,” Brendan G. Clare, an Air Force colonel, wrote in an internal 2007 memo — obtained by Truthout in 2010. The memo recommended that the military ditch the technique.

“Once a student is taught that they can be beaten, and there is no way to resist it, it is difficult to develop psychological hardiness,” Clare wrote in the memo, which Jeffrey Kaye, the author of the Truthout report, recently made public at HuffPost’s request.

The military’s final ban on waterboarding came down later that year. The North Island Navy school in San Diego was the last facility to waterboard students. By 2007, the CIA’s interrogation program had already been exposed and Democrats on Capitol Hill were pushing for legislation that would ban waterboarding and other so-called enhanced interrogation techniques.

President George W. Bush’s administration, then on its way out, had worked with Mitchell and another psychologist, John “Bruce” Jessen, to reverse-engineer SERE techniques for use on terrorist suspects. But that was a perversion of the original intent of the program — hardening U.S. soldiers against other countries’ illegal use of torture. Before undergoing their fake interrogations, SERE trainees are taught that the treatment they will be exposed to is unlawful — but could be used by countries that don’t adhere to the Geneva Conventions.

“We teach personnel to protest the use of these methods, to cite their legal protections under the law of war,” Blake Herzinger, an active Navy reservist who completed SERE training at the North Island facility in 2011, told HuffPost. “We teach them to fall back on that, to say, ‘I’m a legal captive, you cannot torture me.’”

But David Morris, who attended SERE school in 1995 as part of the Marine Corps, has warned that the training could have a more problematic effect.

“The experience of torture at SERE surely plays a role in the minds of the graduates who go on to be interrogators, and it must on some level help them rationalize their actions,” he wrote in 2009. “It’s not hard to imagine them thinking, ‘Well, if I survived this, then it’s OK to do it to this guy.’”

Haspel and the CIA are “fully committed to complying with U.S. law governing detention and interrogation,” CIA spokesman Dean Boyd wrote in an email.

Haspel, who spent her career in the CIA undercover, has never spoken publicly about her role in the torture program. But she will likely face contentious questioning on the matter at her Senate confirmation hearing.

“Ms. Haspel is one of the most qualified persons to be nominated as CIA Director,” Boyd wrote. “Through the confirmation process, the American public will get to know Ms. Haspel for the first time. When they do, we are confident America will be proud to have her as the next CIA Director.”


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