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US Pentagon Releases Training Manual Used As Basis For Bush’s Torture Program – OpEd


Over the last few years, my friends and colleagues Jason Leopold and Jeffrey Kaye have been doing some excellent work for Truthout exposing the Bush administration’s torture program, and human experimentation at Guantánamo, and last week they produced another excellent article for Truthout, examining the significance of a recently released US military training manual for the development of George W. Bush’s torture program.


The development of Bush’s torture program was triggered by the capture of the alleged “high-value detainee” Abu Zubaydah in Pakistan in March 2002, and formalized when John Yoo, a lawyer in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, wrote two memos — the “torture memos” — signed by his boss, Jay Bybee, on August 1, 2002, which purported to redefine torture so that it could be used by the CIA, and approved the use of ten torture techniques on Abu Zubaydah, including waterboarding, an ancient torture technique and a form of controlled drowning.

As Jason and Jeff explain, the manual “was prepared by the Department of Defense’s (DOD) Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA) and used by instructors in the JPRA’s Survival Evasion Resistance Escape (SERE) courses to teach US military personnel how to withstand brutal interrogation techniques if captured by the enemy during wartime.” It has long been known that the Bush administration actively sought the advice of JPRA operatives — including James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen — who proposed reverse engineering the torture techniques taught in US military schools to enable captured personnel to resist torture if captured, and using them in real-life situations with captured “terror suspects.”

The results were a disaster — the sickening torture of individuals in a global web of torture prisons run by the CIA; no intelligence that could not have been obtained by non-coercive means; a staggering waste of the resources of both the CIA and the FBI, as operatives were tied up chasing false leads generated through the use of torture; and a tarnished reputation for the US that has not been cleaned up by President Obama’s ostrich-like refusal to confront the crimes committed by his predecessor.

So dark is this period in America’s modern history that in Guantánamo, where 14 of the supposed “high-value detainees” — including Abu Zubaydah — eventually ended up in September 2006, there has been a blanket ban, since that time, on allowing any of the discussions that have taken place between these men and their lawyers being released to the public, for one reason alone — to prevent any mention of the torture to which these men were subjected from becoming public knowledge.

In the hope of helping more people to understand the dark origins of the Bush administration’s torture program , how wrong and stupid it was, and how many senior officials were involved, I’m delighted to cross-post Jason and Jeff’s article below, which I hope you find enlightening. One passage that leapt out at me, which echoed a theme I first wrote about back in 2009, in two articles entitled, Who Authorized The Torture of Abu Zubaydah? and CIA Torture Began In Afghanistan 8 Months before DoJ Approval, was the discussion of the date that Abu Zubaydah’s torture began. Although the torture of Zubaydah was only approved on August 1, 2002, Jason and Jeff, after noting that James Mitchell “began subjecting Zubaydah to various torture techniques” in May 2002 (in other words, over two months before the memos were issued), also noted, crucially:


Brent Mickum, Zubaydah’s habeas attorney, reviewed the PREAL document and said it confirms what he has long believed: that Zubaydah’s torture took place prior to the issuance of Yoo and Bybee’s August 2002 torture memo.

“This document confirms, in my view, that my client’s torture was over before that memo was ever issued,” said Mickum. “I can’t go into detail and why that is the government can only explain. I have been muzzled wrongfully even though the government contends that everything it did was legal.”

Someday, I hope, someone will actually act on this information, because, without the “golden shield” provided by Yoo’s “torture memos,” the Bush administration officials and lawyers involved in approving Zubaydah’s torture anytime before August 1, 2002 stand revealed as torturers, shorn of any excuses (even Yoo’s outrageous mangling of the law) and therefore as criminals who must be prosecuted.

EXCLUSIVE: “Guidebook to False Confessions”: Key Document John Yoo Used to Draft Torture Memo Released
By Jason Leopold and Jeffrey Kaye, Truthout, April 3, 2012

In May of 2002, one of several meetings was convened at the White House where the CIA sought permission from top Bush administration officials, including then National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, to torture the agency’s first high-value detainee captured after 9/11: Abu Zubaydah.

The CIA claimed Zubaydah, who at the time was being held at a black site prison in Thailand, was “withholding imminent threat information during the initial interrogation sessions,” according to documents released by the Senate Intelligence Committee in April 2009 [PDF].

So “attorneys from the CIA’s Office of General Counsel [including the agency’s top lawyer John Rizzo] met with the Attorney General [John Ashcroft], the National Security Adviser [Rice], the Deputy National Security Adviser [Stephen Hadley], the Legal Adviser to the National Security Council [John Bellinger], and the Counsel to the President [Alberto Gonzales] in mid-May 2002 to discuss the possible use of alternative interrogation methods that differed from the traditional methods used by the U.S.”

One of the key documents handed out to Bush officials at this meeting, and at Principals Committee sessions chaired by Rice that took place between May and July 2002, was a 37-page instructional manual that contained detailed descriptions of seven of the ten techniques that ended up in the legal opinion widely referred to as the “torture memo,” drafted by Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) attorney John Yoo and signed by his boss, Jay Bybee, three months later.

According to Rice, Yoo had attended the Principals Committee meetings and participated in discussions about Zubaydah’s torture.

That instructional manual, referred to as “Pre-Academic Laboratory (PREAL) OPERATING INSTRUCTIONS” [PDF], has just been released by the Department of Defense under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The document sheds additional light on the origins of the Bush administration’s torture policy and for the first time describes exactly what methods of torture Bush officials had discussed — and subsequently approved — for Zubaydah in May 2002.

The PREAL manual was prepared by the Department of Defense’s (DOD) Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA) and used by instructors in the JPRA’s Survival Evasion Resistance Escape (SERE) courses to teach US military personnel how to withstand brutal interrogation techniques if captured by the enemy during wartime. The manual states one of the primary goals of the training is “to give students the most reliable mental picture possible of an actual peacetime governmental detention experiences [sic].”

A U.S. counterterrorism official and an aide to one of the Bush officials who participated in Principals Committee meetings in May 2002, however, confirmed to Truthout last week that the PREAL manual was one of several documents the CIA obtained from JPRA that was shared with Rice and other Principals Committee members in May 2002, the same month the CIA officially took over Zubaydah’s interrogation from the FBI. As National Security Adviser to President George W. Bush, Rice chaired the meetings.

Rice and Bellinger have denied ever seeing a list of SERE training techniques. But in 2008, they told the Senate Armed Services Committee [PDF], which conducted an investigation [PDF] into treatment of detainees in custody of the US government, that they recalled being present at White House meetings where SERE training was discussed.

Sarah Farber, a spokeswoman at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, where Rice teaches political economy, said she would pass on Truthout’s queries about claims that Rice reviewed and discussed the PREAL manual to Rice’s office. But Rice’s office did not respond to our inquiries.

Guidebook to False Confessions

Air Force Col. Steven Kleinman, a career military intelligence officer recognized as one of the DOD’s most effective interrogators as well a former SERE instructor and director of intelligence for JPRA’s teaching academy, said he immediately knew the true value of the PREAL manual if employed as part of an interrogation program.

“This is the guidebook to getting false confessions, a system drawn specifically from the communist interrogation model that was used to generate propaganda rather than intelligence,” Kleinman said in an interview. “If your goal is to obtain useful and reliable information this is not the source book you should be using.”

Indeed, in their newly published book The Hunt for KSM, which refers to self-professed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, investigative reporters Terry McDermott and Josh Meyer wrote that the torture of the top al-Qaeda figure, which included 183 waterboarding sessions, resulted in false confessions about pending attack plans.

Kleinman, who has testified before four committees of Congress about interrogation and detainee policy — and the so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” — has publicly called for a thorough investigation into how a program such as this could have found its way into the interrogation doctrine that guided US-sanctioned operations.

“In SERE courses, we emphatically presented this interrogation paradigm as one that was employed exclusively by nations that were in flagrant violation of the Geneva Conventions and international treaties against torture,” Kleinman said. “We proudly assured the students that we — the United States — would never resort to such despicable methods.”

Rice said she was assured the interrogation methods that were used on Zubaydah, which she and other officials signed off on, “had been deemed not to cause significant physical or psychological harm,” according to written responses to questions about the origins of the torture program Rice provided the Senate Armed Services Committee [PDF].

Kleinman, however, said that’s simply untrue.

“Dr. Rice is clearly an exceptionally bright individual, as were her colleagues. At the same time, however, they understood little about human intelligence gathering and even less about resistance to interrogation training. I simply don’t understand how they could have promoted the assertion that, because these techniques have been used safely with tens of thousands of US military personnel in a carefully controlled training environment, they would also be employed safely in a real-world interrogation environment?” said Kleinman, who testified before the Armed Services Committee about the use of SERE techniques. “A critical distinction that has been consistently overlooked is that detainees have no idea whether interrogators are using [techniques like waterboarding] to intimidate them or to kill them. In a training environment, waterboarding would end as soon as you raised your hand, and the student could be absolutely confident that SERE instructors and medical personnel were always ready to respond to ensure they wouldn’t be injured. In contrast, from the detainee’s perspective, he is in the presence of the enemy.”

Kleinman pointed to one of the techniques in the PREAL manual to demonstrate how the safety of detainees subjected to the methods was clearly not a cause for concern among the government officials who designed and approved of Bush’s torture program. In a section describing the use of cramped confinement, one of the torture techniques Zubaydah was subjected to, the training manual says, “The maximum time allowed for a student to be in cramped confinement in 20 minutes.” But the Yoo/Bybee torture memo says, “Confinement in the larger space can last up to eighteen hours; for the smaller space confinement lasts no more than two hours.” The PREAL document notes that the purpose of cramped confinement, like the 55-gallon drum and the water pit, is used to “demonstrate the reaction to uncooperative behavior, inconsistent logic, or to accelerate the physical and psychological stresses of captivity.”

It also appears that James Mitchell, the psychologist under contract to the CIA and credited as being one of the architects of Bush’s torture program, received some form of authorization to use cramped confinement and sleep deprivation in May 2002, the same month the PREAL manual appears to have been accessed and discussed among top Bush officials and the CIA.

The introduction of a cramped confinement box in May 2002 is what led Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent who first interrogated Zubaydah shortly after he was captured, to leave the CIA black site prison in Thailand that month.

Soufan had complained to officials at FBI headquarters that Mitchell’s interrogations of Zubaydah amounted to “borderline torture,” according to a report released in 2008 by Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine related to the FBI’s role in harsh interrogations [PDF].

Soufan’s partner on the other hand, FBI Special Agent Steve Gaudin, opted to remain at the black site prison. He told Fine’s investigators that, unlike Soufan, he had no “moral objection” to the interrogation techniques Mitchell subjected Zubaydah to because they were “comparable” to the “harsh interrogation” techniques he “himself had undergone” as part of the US Army’s SERE training. In his book, The Black Banners, published last September, Soufan refers to the methods of interrogation Mitchell subjected Zubaydah to during May 2002 as “experiments.”

Breaking Down the Prisoner

The CIA, apparently, was not legally authorized to subject detainees to some of the more extreme forms of torture described in the manual, such as immersion in an icy “Water Pit” and forced confinement in a 55-gallon drum or barrel, the purpose of which was to “demonstrate the reaction to uncooperative behavior and accelerate the physical and psychological stresses of captivity.”

But other techniques cited in the PREAL instructional manual, such as walling, cramped confinement, facial slap, sleep deprivation, attention grasp, facial hold and stress positions were included in Yoo and Bybee’s August 1, 2002 torture memo.

The manual also describes how the use of hooding (a form of sensory deprivation) and sexual humiliation can be used as a form of torture, which military interrogators employed against detainees at Guantánamo. Moreover, SERE trainees were also subjected to isolation, according to the PREAL manual (another form of torture detainees underwent), including a harsh form where the isolated prisoner was hooded and cuffed in what the manual called “Iso-stress.” OLC, however, never signed off on isolation as a specific interrogation technique.

Where the PREAL manual and the torture memo differ is in the detailed descriptions of the purpose of subjecting a prisoner to these torture techniques. For example, the PREAL manual says the purpose of walling, where a prisoner is slammed against a “flexible” wall, would be to instill “fear,” “despair” and “humiliation.” The torture memo, however, states “walling” is a method used to “shock” or “surprise” the detainee.

The most controversial of the ten torture techniques used on Zubaydah — waterboarding — is not included in the PREAL manual. Waterboarding was cited in other SERE documents the CIA and DOD obtained from JPRA, according to an investigation by the Senate Armed Services Committee that probed the treatment of detainees in custody of the US government.

The PREAL manual also includes a lengthy description on the use of water as a torture method, such as “water dousing.” That technique, which the manual says was used to “create a distracting pressure, to startle” and to “instill humiliation or cause insult,” was not approved until August 2004, when the head of OLC, Steven Bradbury, drafted a second torture memo to replace the one by Yoo and Bybee [PDF].

However, a high-level intelligence source told Truthout in April 2010 that Zubaydah was repeatedly doused with cold water from a hose (an example cited in the PREAL manual’s of how water could be used to torture a prisoner) while he was naked and shackled by chains attached to a ceiling in the cell he was kept in at the black site prison in Thailand.

The harsh physical techniques included in the manual are consistent with notes written by psychologist Bruce Jessen for a SERE survival-training course more than two decades ago, which said enemies who captured US personnel used methods of torture, such as those outlined in the PREAL manual, as a way of gaining “total control” over the prisoner. The “end goal,” according to Jessen’s handwritten notes, was to make the prisoner feel “completely dependent” on his captors so they would “comply with [their] wishes.”

The purpose of such dependence, according to Jessen, who worked with Mitchell in designing Bush’s torture program, was to coerce the prisoner’s cooperation, the better to use the prisoner for “propaganda, special favors, confession, etc.” Jessen’s handwritten notes provided the first look into the true purpose of the “enhanced interrogation” program and were the subject of an exclusive investigative report published by Truthout last year.

The PREAL manual also notes the importance of propaganda in the prisoner of war setting. For instance, in a mock torture scenario prisoners are brought before a “press conference” to answer questions from “reporters.” According to the manual, “reporters play the role of legitimate American newspersons,” raising the question as to whether professional reporters were recruited as part of the PREAL training.

“Found” in OLC’s Files

The PREAL manual was first identified in a report released by the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) in February 2010 [PDF], which was the result of an investigation  conducted by OPR over five and a half years into the legal work Yoo and Bybee did prior to writing the August 2002 torture memo. (Jeffrey Kaye was the first reporter to discuss the PREAL manual in a report published in Truthout in March 2010.)

The OPR report states that the “May 7, 2002″ PREAL manual, marked “For Official Use Only,” was found in OLC’s files, but investigators said there was “no indication of how or when it was obtained.”

Aaron Graves, a spokesman in DoD’s FOIA division, said he did not know if the May 7, 2002, date at the bottom of each page of the manual meant it was drafted on that date, accessed from  a government hard-drive, or placed into OLC’s files on that date.

Jason Darelius, a DoD FOIA officer, told Truthout Monday that the manual was cleared for release late last year and posted to DoD’s FOIA reading room March 15 under the heading, “Operations and Plans — Detainees.” It was requested under FOIA by McClatchy Newspapers, but the news organization never filed a report about the significance of the document as it pertains to the origins of the Bush administration’s torture program.

“Learned Helplessness”

The Justice Department’s OPR report stated that the “CIA’s perception that a more aggressive approach to interrogation was needed accelerated the ongoing development by the CIA of a formal set of EITs by CIA contractor/psychologists, some of whom had been involved in the United States military’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) training program for military personnel.”

But, according to the report, methods US military personnel may experience after enemy capture differed from the mock prisoner of war scenarios SERE trainees underwent “in one significant respect.” Quoting from the PREAL manual, the OPR report said, “Maximum effort will be made to ensure that students do not develop a sense of ‘learned helplessness’” during role-playing scenarios.

That citation, we now know, can be found on page 4 of the PREAL manual, under “[P]re-Academic Laboratory Goals.” It underscores how military and CIA interrogators deviated from the lessons of the SERE training when they subjected detainees to the same torture techniques used in the role-playing scenarios.

“Learned Helplessness” was one of the main goals of the Bush administration’s torture program as overseen by Mitchell and Jessen. It is defined as “a laboratory model of depression in which exposure to a series of unforeseen adverse situations gives rise to a sense of helplessness or an inability to cope with or devise ways to escape such situations, even when escape is possible,” according to the American Heritage Medical Dictionary.

The learned helplessness theory was developed by psychologist Martin Seligman, who discussed it in May 2002 at the SERE training school in San Diego, the same month Mitchell, who attended the lecture, began subjecting Zubaydah to various torture techniques. The CIA sponsored Seligman’s lecture.

Brent Mickum, Zubaydah’s habeas attorney, reviewed the PREAL document and said it confirms what he has long believed: that Zubaydah’s torture took place prior to the issuance of Yoo and Bybee’s August 2002 torture memo.

“This document confirms, in my view, that my client’s torture was over before that memo was ever issued,” said Mickum. “I can’t go into detail and why that is the government can only explain. I have been muzzled wrongfully even though the government contends that everything it did was legal.”

Echoing Kleinman, Mickum added he was also struck by the PREAL manual’s extensive warnings to SERE instructors about the safety of trainees subjected to brutal interrogation methods.

“Without commenting about anything that my client told me about what was done to him, what I can tell you is that there is no correlation between the safe treatment of SERE trainees listed in this particular document and what happened to my client. None whatsoever.”

Authors’ Note: When the Department of Defense released the PREAL manual last month, we noticed that several pages and numbered sections (4.7 through 4.10, for example) were missing from the PDF file and the file also contained a number of duplicate pages. We contacted the FOIA office about the issue and FOIA analysts there did restore the missing pages (but certain numbered sections, including one on “Interrogators,” are still missing), except for one: page 33, which a FOIA officer said is also missing from the Defense Department’s hard-copy version of the manual. We were told to contact the Department of Justice, since that is the agency that originally received the FOIA and referred it the Defense Department to process for release. However,  our calls were not returned.

For further information, please check out this podcast of Jason Leopold discussing the report on The Peter B. Collins Show.

Andy Worthington

Andy Worthington is an investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers). Worthington is the author of "The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison"

One thought on “US Pentagon Releases Training Manual Used As Basis For Bush’s Torture Program – OpEd

  • April 13, 2012 at 6:14 pm

    Andy, on this issue you need to be recognised on both sides of the Atlantic, and now I think you really managed this. The next step is to make half-somnolent North Americans to ask themselves where their moral centre really is when they cast their vote, or decide whether to bother to vote.

    Would they vote for a proponent of torture or someone who quietly continued with torture without asking them to confirm that they had ended this practice and the others that go with it? If we made a list of abhorrent lawless practices we would have to include kidnapping, disappearance, denial of outside family contact, denial of legal representation, forced relocation, brutal treatment, outsourcing of torture, sexual humiliation, psychological torture, solitary confinement, sensory deprivation, noise, hot and cold treatment, water-boarding …

    Bit by bit, all of these are being domesticated. US President, Commander-in-Chief Barack Obama, has signed off on NDAA, which includes all of this. Any Republican opponent like Mitt Romney would undoubtedly take up the mantle with enthusiasm and continue to ensure that US citizens get to experience the kind of civil liberties ‘enjoyed’ by citizens of the countries the US has invaded, or those whose authoritarian rulers were installed by or supported by the US. Obama has continued the abominable practise of fomenting coups; Honduras and Maldives are ones that are known.

    The pretence that the US is the ‘Leader of the Free World’ has been abandoned. The US no longer tries to lead the free anything. Its lawlessness has become the new normal of very low standards that violate the UN Charter. Extra-judicial norms modelled by the USA are copied without apology by all dictators and despots. There are no longer any ‘good guys’, no more good examples. We live in an infinitely worse world now than before the War of Terror. US voters please think deeply before you vote. Citizens of the rest of the world depend on it.


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