CIA/SERE Experiments Evidence of Attempt to Mislead on OLC Torture Memos

A U.S. soldier undergoing SERE training.

A U.S. soldier undergoing SERE training.

Professor Shane O’Mara at Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience in Dublin has written an article which has caught the attention of the mainstream media.

Associated Press reporter Pamela Hess described Prof. O’Mara’s article,”Torturing the Brain: On the folk psychology and folk neurobiology motivating ‘enhanced and coercive interrogation techniques’” (PDF), as showing that the CIA’s “severe interrogation techniques appear based on… a layman’s idea of how the brain works as opposed to science-based understanding of memory and cognitive function.” (Bmaz who blogs at Emptywheel also reported on this.)

What neither Ms. Hess nor Professor O’Mara apparently realized is that in conducting his research for his review on how the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” caused debilitating damage to the brain and nervous system — producing confabulation more readily than information — one of the scientific papers O’Mara relied upon was itself produced by a CIA researcher. Such close participation between CIA and military researchers and the world of stress research adds a sinister dimension to the production of the OLC memos, which Professor O’Mara otherwise believes were based on naive “folk” beliefs and a faulty neuropsychobiological model.

But this is not the case. The CIA was well-aware of the type of research he cites — because it was a major contributor to such research!

As I reported last week, CIA Experiments on US Soldiers Linked to Torture Program (later picked up by Truthout), I showed how a Yale psychiatrist, and researcher for the National Center for Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, had received hundreds of thousands of dollars to do research on the psychological and physiological effects of stress produced by SERE techniques. The researcher, Charles A. Morgan, III, has identified himself, in certain settings, as a CIA behavioral scientist.

(SERE stands for Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape, and is the name for the military survival schools that provide select members of the armed forces with “stress inoculation” training by subjecting them to a reduced amount of torture and captivity. The CIA’s EITs were famously reverse-engineered by SERE psychologists from the techniques utilized during SERE training.)

In the AP article, Hess writes, “A 2006 Intelligence Science Board report on interrogation also noted possible negative effects of certain methods.” But Hess doesn’t mention, nor does she likely know, that one of the primary members on the ISB board that produced the report was the same Dr. Morgan.

… in the Information Science Board (ISB) document, Educing Information [PDF] — which was heavily drawn upon by President Obama’s task force on interrogations, for recommendations on the interrogations issue — Dr. Morgan is identified as a member of the 11-person “Government Experts Committee,” and listed as affiliated with the Intelligence Technology Innovation Center (ITIC). According to Intelligence Online, ITIC is “a research organization under the CIA’s authority,” which “answers directly to the CIA’s Science and Technology directorate.”

Research on SERE Techniques and the OLC Memos

The “CIA Experiments” article described some of the research Dr. Morgan and his associates have conducted using SERE trainees, many of them Special Forces personnel. (Professor O’Hara cites one of Morgan’s articles himself — see footnote 9 to his paper.) In a June 2000 article, “Assessment of Humans Experiencing Uncontrollable Stress: The SERE Course,” in Special Warfare (PDF), Morgan and his Special Operations psychologist co-author cite “recorded changes in cortisol levels” among individuals subjected to SERE techniques as “some of the greatest ever documented in humans.” As Professor O’Mara notes in his own essay, a “substantial increase in cortisol levels has a deleterious effect on memory.” The same article described testosterone levels falling in male subjects to below castration levels.

Another article by Morgan and his team looked at dissociative psychological effects of SERE techniques upon human subjects. (Dissociation produces symptoms such as depersonalization, derealization, psychic or emotional numbing, and general cognitive confusion.)

RESULTS: In study 1, 96% of subjects reported dissociative symptoms in response to acute stress. Total scores, as well as individual item scores, on the dissociation scale were significantly lower in Special Forces soldiers compared to general infantry troops. In study 2, 42% of subjects reported dissociative symptoms before stress and 96% reported them after acute stress.

Professor O’Mara’s essay is an excellent brief review of the relevant literature on stress, as it pertains to the kinds of torture conducted by the CIA, and its effects upon memory, and the presumed ability to produce accurate information. It easily deserves wide dissemination. But evidence of CIA participation in the very research that was suppressed in the OLC memos shows that the conclusions drawn in the torture memos were not simply due to “bad faith” lawyering. As I wrote in my original article:

The frenzied search for data on waterboarding, sleep deprivation, isolation, confinement in a small box, etc., to submit to OLC attorneys making legal determinations on whether proposed interrogation techniques constituted torture, was a kabuki organized by the CIA. The OLC attorneys involved — John Yoo, Stephen Bradbury, Jay Bybee, and others — were witting or unwitting partners in suppression of CIA research on torture (as future investigations will disclose). Given the participation of members of the Office of the Vice President, particularly David Addington and Vice President Cheney himself, in the promulgation of the torture program, and the composition of the memos, it seems likely they were also involved in the suppression of this material. As a result, the memos produced authorizing the “enhanced interrogation techniques” were composed as the result of fraud and bad faith, the result of a criminal conspiracy to implement illegal torture techniques.

In this earlier article, I had taken Dr. Morgan at his word, as reported in a 2007 New York Times article, that he was incredulous at how SERE techniques could have migrated over to the torture program. But, as I recently discovered (H/T to fellow psychologist Brad Olson), the CIA scientist had a different take on the uses of SERE research in an essay in the 2006 book, Military Psychology, Clinical and Operational Applications (p. 252):

The SERE platform offers a unique opportunity to evaluate old and new assessment techniques under conditions that are more realistic than traditional laboratories….

The SERE training environment affords the military services the opportunity to collaborate with various other government agencies in exploring old and new techniques in gathering human intelligence.

The O’Mara essay and AP article appear only a few weeks after Physicians for Human Rights released a “white paper” highlighting evidence of illegal human experimentation on U.S.-held “terrorism” prisoners undergoing torture. The allegations of torture experimentation are consistent with reports of CIA experimentation upon Abu Zubaydah, and of the Pentagon running an interrogation “Battle Lab” at Guantanamo. In his book, Oath Betrayed: America’s Torture Doctors, bioethicist Steven Miles calls Mohammed al-Khatani’s interrogation an experiment: “The peculiar content and structure of this document makes sense if it is the log of research on coercive interrogation….” (p. 176).

Experimentation upon subjects to further “scientific” understanding of the effects of torture is also not new. In the 1950s, the CIA and Pentagon funded top psychologists and psychiatrists in research upon the effects of SERE training. These researchers established a protocol for psychological torture, based on torture tactics that induced “debility, dependency, and dread.” (See West LJ., Medical and psychiatric considerations in survival training. In: Report of the Special Study Group on Survival Training (AFR 190 16). Lackland Air Force Base, Tex: Air Force Personnel and Training Research Centers; 1956.) This protocol was later incorporated into an early 1960s CIA (KUBARK) interrogation manual.

It is not enough to understand what research the Office of Legal Counsel attorneys failed to include in their infamous torture memos. One must understand why this research was not included, and who was involved in that. The evidence points to a deliberate attempt to implement and then hide a torture program, whose very basis for existence may have been, in part, to study the effects of torture upon involuntary subjects, in order to implement (or hide) an updated protocol for coercive interrogation.

Only a full, wide-ranging, and open investigation — including not only politicians, academics, lawyers, and blue-ribbon, distinguished experts, but representatives of human rights organizations, church and labor leaders, and other important societal participants — will, given full subpoena power, be able to get to the bottom of this sinister program that seized hold of the governmental apparatus, and steered it towards brutality and a catastrophic breakdown of law.

This report was originally published at

Jeffrey Kaye, a psychologist living in Northern California and a regular contributor The Public Record, has been blogging at Daily Kos since May 2005, and maintains a personal blog, Invictus. E-mail Mr. Kaye at sfpsych at gmail dot com.

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7 Responses for “CIA/SERE Experiments Evidence of Attempt to Mislead on OLC Torture Memos”

  1. Dizzy says:

    I find it hard to believe that training volunteers to resist Chinese and Soviet methods designed to produced false confessions is not the best method for actionable intelligence when done to handcuffed and beaten men that you believe hate your country. I mean this has got to work since I seen on TV!

    Ok, I remember the “crop dusters of death,” the “Saddam and Osama connection,” “WMD/yellow cake Uranium,” “frog men going to attack the Statue of Liberty,” and all the terror alert changes from blue to orange to yellow and back to violet, but to suggest this has not been effective is crazy talk.

    You either support these forms of abuse or you are one of them. I’m sure that was what the Chinese and Soviets were told as well.

  2. Trudy Bond says:

    Your continued indepth, investigative research shines a bright light on the lies, coverups, and history of torture in the CIA. Your work is extremely important and I can only hope that someday people will demand a change in our government, such that it will no longer support these actions.

  3. Linda Marie Gore says:

    Dizzy says:
    September 25, 2009 at 5:25 am

    “You either support these forms of abuse or you are one of them.”

    Kaye, Olson, Reisner, Welch, Bond and other corrupt US Psychologists are perpetrating what’s known as a “limited hangout”.

    By publishing a steady stream of articles wherein the criminally insane psychologists who participated in the torture and murder of a few thousand detainees are thrown under the bus, Kaye and other corrupt US psychologists hope to protect the criminally insane arses, and more significantly, the lucrative income which America’s criminally insane psychologists derive from criminally conspiring with the FBI to protect the criminal arses of America’s thoroughly corrupt civil servants by blackmailing, terrorizing and/or effecting the murder of millions of their crime victims .

  4. There’s more going on here than people know; Josef Mengele still lives :(

    The Ominous Parallels Report

    The Ominous Parallels is a web site that discusses how The United States government uses organized Harassment and Torture perpetrated by the National Security Agency [NSA], Science Application International Corporation [SAIC] and other government agency’s using Military grade Psychological Operations and Direct Energy Weapons against United States citizens, and other countries citizens from around the world.

    As a former Intelligence community worker working for Science Applications International Corporation I’ve come under covert-overt attack by the National Security Apparatus for whistle-blowing that the office I worked in located at Dulles, VA right beside the airport for Science Applications International Corporation was empty on the morning of the 11th of September 2001.

    Since leaving Science Applications International Corporation I’ve been under constant surveillance, constant harassment by the U.S. Government, its agency’s and Science Application International Corporation.

    The Ominous Parallels website discusses the specifics concerning these covert types of harassment – active measures that I’ve been exposed to and have experienced; moreover, the specifics of how these operations work.

    For emphasis, this includes methodologies of psychological torture via direct energy weapons and covert operations. Philippe Sands book titled “The Torture Team” is profound as it speaks to these methodologies that I have experienced as a TI.

    As a TI I know that the torture at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib are a “by-product” of something much more sinister that is going on in our world. My hope is that one day these programs will be exposed and to that end The Ominous Parallels website seeks to educate the public about these kinds of weapons, operations, players and the effect it is having on our world.

    More important is how the inhumane actions of our government parallels that of Nazi Germany between 1933 – 1945.

    This is REAL; TIs need some kind of safe haven!

    Love “Light” and Energy

    _Don [Read with discernment]

  5. stevelaudig says:

    Can you expect torturers to tell the truth? Ever?

  6. anonymity says:

    This is an excellent article – I only just now ran across it. I wanted to point out that I ran across another factor in interrogations – that is the element of “clean teams” being able to gather information after the fact. These would not necessarily be the CIA agents,

    Also, if someone is wondering why those people claiming government harassment post on Guantanamo torture sights the reasons should be obvious – regardless of who is behind the harassment of individuals here, some of the same tactics are being used.

    (Add to that some kind of Ericksonian NLP that in conjunction with the artificially induced PTSD makes a victim much more susceptible to disinformation about the origins of the program as well as what’s going on,)

    People who create systems to intensely harass and mentally destroy “terror suspects,” innocent persons and even children in some cases need to be exposed and prosecuted.

  7. JB, Maj, SF (retired) says:

    The objective of SERE is NOT to train people to give “false statements” as indicated in DIZZY above, but rather to give high risk Special Operations personnel some experience and techniques, to survive the ordeal. After about 24 hours all tactical intelligence is essentially worthless, and there is no reason to lie further. We teach to resist and perhaps deceive the enemy into thinking we have more, to keep us alive, but the object of SERE is to survive captivity, and give techniques and tools for escape and evasion as well. I am a grad of both the U.S. Navy SEAL SERE course and the U.S. Army Special Forces SERE High Risk courses, and the belief that water boarding and the other enhanced interrogation techniques are torture is simply ridiculous. We have become a culture of “kindler gentler ninnies” and we need to grow up and realize that the rest of the world does not all run around singing Kumbaya. Come on folks, stop acting little children and realize we must protect our military personnel, and it’s not always FUN AND GAMES! JB

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