Treatment of Detainees in U.S. custody
The collection of timely and accurate intelligence is critical to the safety of U.S. personnel deployed abroad and to the security of the American people here at home. The methods by which we elicit intelligence information from detainees in our custody affect not only the reliability of that information, but our broader efforts to win hearts and minds and attract allies to our side. Al Qaeda and Taliban terrorists are taught to expect Americans to abuse them. They are recruited based on false propaganda that says the United States is out to destroy Islam. Treating detainees harshly only reinforces that distorted view, increases resistance to cooperation, and creates new enemies.
Shortly after Senator Levin became Chairman of the Armed Services Committee in January 2007, he set up an investigations unit of committee staff whose first order of business was to look into the origins of detainee abuses. Committee staff spent more than a year-and-a-half conducting that investigation. They reviewed hundreds of thousands of documents and conducted extensive interviews of more than 70 individuals, including a number of senior civilian and military officials.
A focus of the investigation was the influence of Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape (SERE) resistance training techniques on our interrogation policies and practices. SERE training is intended to be used to teach our soldiers how to resist interrogation by enemies that refuse to follow the Geneva Conventions and international law. In SERE school, our troops who are at risk of capture are exposed – in a controlled environment with great protections and caution – to techniques adapted from abusive tactics used against American soldiers by enemies such as the Communist Chinese during the Korean War.
SERE training techniques include stress positions, forced nudity, “walling,” use of fear, sleep deprivation and, until recently, the Navy SERE school used the waterboard. These techniques were designed to give our students a taste of what they might be subjected to if captured by a ruthless, lawless enemy so that they would be better prepared to resist. The techniques were never intended to be used against detainees in U.S. custody.
Nevertheless, the investigation revealed that senior military and civilian officials authorized the use of SERE training techniques in interrogations. The investigation found that beginning in the spring of 2002, Cabinet officials met in the White House to discuss the CIA’s interrogation program. Resistance training (the “R” in SERE) was a subject of discussion. The investigation discovered that in July 2002, at the request of DoD General Counsel Jim Haynes’s office, the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA) – the DoD agency that oversees SERE training – provided Mr. Haynes’s office a list of techniques used in SERE school and an assessment of the psychological effect of using those techniques on students.
In December 2002, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld authorized some of those same techniques for use against detainees at GTMO. The investigation discovered that in January 2003, SERE instructors travelled to GTMO and trained interrogators to hit detainees and put them in stress positions. And the investigation revealed that instructors from JPRA’s SERE school participated in at least one abusive interrogation and were present for others during a visit to Iraq in September 2003.
In June and September of 2008, Senator Levin held public Armed Services Committee hearings on the investigation. In addition, his staff completed an extensive report of the investigation which was unanimously adopted by the committee.
While Bush administration officials have portrayed abuse as the result of a few bad apples acting on their own, the committee’s investigation found otherwise. In fact, the bipartisan committee report concluded that:
“The abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib in late 2003 was not simply the result of a few soldiers acting on their own. Interrogation techniques such as stripping detainees of their clothes, placing them in stress positions, and using military working dogs to intimidate them appeared in Iraq only after they had been approved for use in Afghanistan and at GTMO. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s December 2, 2002 authorization of aggressive interrogation techniques and subsequent interrogation policies and plans approved by senior military and civilian officials conveyed the message that physical pressures and degradation were appropriate treatment for detainees in U.S. military custody. What followed was an erosion in standards dictating that detainees be treated humanely.”
The investigation was an effort to set the record straight on this chapter in our history that has so damaged both America’s standing and our security. America needs to own up to its mistakes so that we can rebuild some of the good will that we have lost.
Senator Levin’s Record on Treatment of Detainees in U.S. custody
- Jan. 10, 2012 – Levin releases summary debunking false claims on detainee provisions
Sen. Levin releases a summary of provisions on detention of terror suspects in the National Defense Authorization Act and explains that a number of public criticisms of the provisions misstate their impact.
- October 22, 2009 - Sen. Levin helps guide detainee policy
Defense Authorization Act for 2010 passes, including the Military Commissions Act of 2009, which Sen. Levin helped write, and which brings procedures for military commission trials of terrorism suspects in line with the protections of the Geneva Conventions.
- April 21, 2009 - Sen. Levin leads probe of detainee policies
Senate Armed Services Committee releases the report [PDF] from its inquiry into the treatment of detainees in U.S. custody, which found that “authorization of aggressive interrogation techniques and subsequent interrogation policies and plans approved by senior military and civilian officials conveyed the message that physical pressures and degradation were appropriate treatment for detainees in U.S. military custody.”
- December 11, 2008 - Sen. Levin releases executive summary of report on treatment of detainees
Senate Armed Services Committee releases the executive summary and conclusions [PDF] of its bipartisan report into the treatment of detainees in U.S. custody. The committee concludes that the authorization of aggressive interrogation techniques by senior officials was both a direct cause of detainee abuse and conveyed the message that it was okay to mistreat degrade detainees in U.S. custody.
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