Today, people were shocked by the news. In the New York Times, Scott Shane had an article on the front page, China Inspired Interrogations at Guantanamo. I got a lot of questions about it, which surprised me. It surprised me because last week (and this) I have been wearing an orange ribbon around every where I go. I started last Monday. On Friday, the day after the International Day Against Torture, someone finally asked me what it was and why I was wearing it.
The person was, to be fair, looking for small talk (trying to distract me during a medical procedure). When I told her it was for the International Day Against Torture, and that it commemorated the entry into force of the U.N. Convention Against Torture, I got asked if this was a convention I had attended, and did I get the ribbon there? Sometimes, when you watch a lot of hearings, whose pace really is quickening, and see a lot of activity with human rights groups releasing their reports, and see at least a blurb in the paper about one or two of the reports, a feeling builds that its got momentum, and the tide is turning. And then someone who is in their early twenties, and is trying hard to do good for people, knows nothing about either the current situation with respect to torture, or the long history of the world trying to end it. It could be worse. A businessman told me that torture just wasn't on his radar. Umm, if you wait long enough, if America keeps to this path, it certainly will be.
But the article about the techniques coming from China struck some kind of nerve. It's hard to say why. There have been many articles that described the SERE techniques as having evolved from concerns about the brainwashing of POWs during the Korean War. Here's one from Daily Kos last year about the CIA that mentions where they came from. The two psychologists mentioned, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen were also featured in this article on teaching SERE techniques at Guantanamo at Salon. This article, also by Mark Benjamin, specifically mentions the KUBARK manual, in the context of sensory deprivation, written in 1963 to summarize what had been learned by researching the Chinese tactics. And even the movie Conspiracy Theory (1997) mentions MKULTRA, another derivative of the study of the techniques that underlay brainwashing. That's if you don't want to talk about The Manchurian Candidate, which came out in 1962, and was based on tactics used on American POWs in the Korean War. Perhaps nobody realized that the Chinese were our adversaries in that war. That would be really sad, a bad day indeed for all the history teachers in the country. More likely, nobody read all those other articles? Or was the surprise over the never before in mainstream media print revelation that those tactics had never been designed to get intelligence, only confessions, and were used for false confessions by the Chinese? Since it is, as far as I can tell, really true that this little fact has never been in mainstream print before, let's hope this was the cause of the surprise.
Some of the outrage was caused by this "proof" that torture produces false data. Believe it or not, technically that is not true. The truth of a coerced confession depends on the truth of the statement itself, which is not a decision made by the prisoner who is confessing under torture. The statement is given to the prisoner by those forcing it, and the prisoner confesses it. So it may be true or false, and its veracity has nothing to do with the brutality of the method. Confessions simply are not a form of information collection. They are a form of propaganda, when the confession is broadcast, as it was during the Korean War, they are a form of intimidation, when people see how broken the prisoner is, or when the prisoner realizes that there is nothing they can do to stop themselves from giving in. But they are not a form of information extraction. Consequently, they don't stop ticking bombs, they don't keep troops from encountering IEDs or running into sniper fire, they don't provide intelligence at all.
Torture has a long history as a form of confession. In fact, that was its purpose in Roman times, and that was its purpose when used by the Inquisitors of the church. It was its purpose during the Cold War, along with the propaganda purpose mentioned above. There are certainly fears that it will be more. The fear that drove the research in the 1950's was twofold: That these techniques would be used to cause captured soldiers to give up sensitive information, and that they could be somehow brainwashed, have their psyches rewritten with secret instructions to cause harm after their release at a later date. Experiments and programs were conducted on both fronts: SERE was the result of efforts focusing on inuring soldiers to giving up sensitive information, and the sensory deprivation and MKULTRA programs were concentrated on seeing whether psyches could be rewritten. In the latter case, they learned that the old psyche could be forced to come apart, but had trouble actually writing a new one. Countless (because we still don't know who they all were) experimental subject disasters later, the latter project was given up, but the methods became part of the documents, like KUBARK, and they became part of the methodology drawn on by both the CIA and the U.S. military in their recent excursions into torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Mitchell and Jessen also had numerous other studies at their disposal, like the Milgram experiments and the Stanford Prison Experiment.
It could be argued that SERE is where the belief in the existence of an interrogation method including torture as its basis survives. The Chinese, and from descriptions the Vietnamese during the Vietnam War as well, seem to have used the methods as confession methods, not to save their prisoners souls, but to put them on display for propaganda purposes. It has always been the West that seems to have believed more in the value of torture for extracting information. It is in our movies, long before the series '24', but certainly perfected in that series. The concept of torturing information out of prisoners is even in comedy skits ("Sign zee papers, old man..."). But confession is what it most usually produces, and confessions are what American interrogators chiefly have got out of it.
That being the case, there is little reason for it, besides intimidation, propaganda, and revenge.