April 22, 2009
In a series of high-level meetings in 2002, without a single dissent from cabinet members or lawmakers, the United States for the first time officially embraced the brutal methods of interrogation it had always condemned.
This extraordinary consensus was possible, an examination by The New York Times shows, largely because no one involved — not the top two C.I.A. officials who were pushing the program, not the senior aides to President George W. Bush, not the leaders of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees — investigated the gruesome origins of the techniques they were approving with little debate.
According to several former top officials involved in the discussions seven years ago, they did not know that the military training program, called SERE, for Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape, had been created decades earlier to give American pilots and soldiers a sample of the torture methods used by Communists in the Korean War, methods that had wrung false confessions from Americans…
They did not know that some veteran trainers from the SERE program itself had warned in internal memorandums that, morality aside, the methods were ineffective. Nor were most of the officials aware that the former military psychologist who played a central role in persuading C.I.A. officials to use the harsh methods had never conducted a real interrogation, or that the Justice Department lawyer most responsible for declaring the methods legal had idiosyncratic ideas that even the Bush Justice Department would later renounce.
The process was “a perfect storm of ignorance and enthusiasm,” a former C.I.A. official said.
In general, I wouldn’t think it was a problem not to know the origins of a technique, except for political reasons. But not knowing that the SERE program was designed to help soldiers withstand interrogations that had produced false confessions is inexcusable, especially since this was our program. Not knowing that the psychologist who persuaded the CIA to go for this had never conducted an actual interrogation is similarly mind-boggling. The fact that no one knew what the actual interrogators thought of all this is standard for the Bush administration, but it should not have been.
There are all sorts of experts in our government, including experts on interrogation. There’s also more than enough institutional memory to inform the administration about the origins of the SERE program. But the Bush administration, typically, did not bother with them. They preferred to make things up as they went along, because, after all, they always knew better.
This is what happens when we stop demanding minimal competence in our Presidents; when we start caring more about who we would rather have a beer with than, oh, who would be most likely to seek out the best advice and listen to all sides of an argument before making an important decision, or whose judgment we can trust. We end up with people who toss aside our most fundamental values because someone who has never conducted an interrogation before thinks it might be a good idea, and no one bothers to do the basic background research on what he proposes.