The New York Times reports that a presentation at Guantanamo Bay on how to increase compliance from detainees on intel interrogations came directly from an analysis of Chinese Communist methods used during the Korean War to “brainwash” American POWs. Apparently the trainers who delivered the class had no awareness of the origin of their material; they developed it from the SERE training that the Pentagon created specifically to combat the Chinese techniques:
The military trainers who came to Guantánamo Bay in December 2002 based an entire interrogation class on a chart showing the effects of “coercive management techniques” for possible use on prisoners, including “sleep deprivation,” “prolonged constraint,” and “exposure.”
What the trainers did not say, and may not have known, was that their chart had been copied verbatim from a 1957 Air Force study of Chinese Communist techniques used during the Korean War to obtain confessions, many of them false, from American prisoners.
The attached documents, declassified and released by Congress, shows that the Gitmo briefings in fact did include the analysis by Alfred D. Biderman in 1957, then working as a sociologist for the Air Force. Most of the entries in Biderman’s chart seem innocuous, with techniques such as “Monotonous food”, “Threats of endless isolation and interrogation”, “confrontations”, and “occasional indulgences” given as methods of breaking down resistance to interrogators.
Others, however, are less innocuous. “Semi-starvation” and “exploitation of wounds” appear in both charts and would qualify as at least mistreatment and probably torture, under even the most restrictive definitions possible. “Preventing personal hygiene” and “Filthy, infested environment” would also count for mistreatment, although not torture. “Sleep deprivation” and “prolonged constraint” have already been discussed as a technique used at Gitmo and helped fuel the debate over the tactics used to gain intel at the facility several years ago.
The question is whether Biderman’s chart was used as a template for tactics at all, or whether it served as a conceptual look at techniques and their limits. The Times appears to be less clear on how the chart was used:
The documents released last month include an e-mail message from two SERE trainers reporting on a trip to Guantánamo from Dec. 29, 2002, to Jan. 4, 2003. Their purpose, the message said, was to present to interrogators “the theory and application of the physical pressures utilized during our training.”
The sessions included “an in-depth class on Biderman’s Principles,” the message said, referring to the chart from Mr. Biderman’s 1957 article. Versions of the same chart, often identified as “Biderman’s Chart of Coercion,” have circulated on anti-cult sites on the Web, where the methods are used to describe how cults control their members.
This material got presented, therefore, in an overview of what drove SERE, and the concepts used in training Americans to resist torture and mistreatment. This became important because the Gitmo interrogators saw evidence thatAQ detainees had received resistance training prior to their capture, and needed some indication of what that training may have prepared them to resist. The trainers noted in their overview that the individual physical pressures had to be evaulated and determined appropriate before implementation, but the overall point was to emphasize the total “captive environment”. The trainers also noted that the physical pressures actually mattered much less than the psychological pressures.
The question, now as before, is which of these techniques actually came into play, not whether they appeared on a chart in a classroom setting. According to the support materials provided by the Times and their actual reporting, it’s not clear that any of the objectionable techniques were used — although with the use of waterboarding an established fact (and used prior to this briefing by SERE trainers), one can certainly assume that at least some of them did get used. That should be a matter for closed-session investigations by Congress and the DoD. Apparently, no one has found any evidence outside of this training briefing.
Update: The Times notes that the Biderman article title emphasizes “false” confessions, but I suspect that the Pentagon worried a lot more about preventing the release of real intelligence through POW interrogations. False confessions cause embarrassment, but the uncovering of factual intel costs lives and harms military objectives.