Chief of Training
US Navy SERE
Malcolm Nance is a former master instructor and chief of training at the U.S. Navy's Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape school, who has himself been waterboarded as part of the training. A long-time intelligence specialist who speaks five languages, including Arabic, Nance has been deployed on counterterrorism operations in the Balkans, the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa. Now retired from the Navy, Nance is the author of the 2007 book, The Terrorists of Iraq: Inside the Strategy and Tactics of the Iraq Insurgency, and is a counterterrorism consultant based in Washington, D.C. He is also a contributor to the online site, Small Wars Journal.
Malcolm Nance on...
Interview: November 15, 2007
What is SERE? First of all, what does S-E-R-E stand for?
Well, in my last four years in the military, I moved away from my regular intelligence duties and volunteered to go to teach at the SERE school in California. And that stands for Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape.
And what is it designed to do? Where did it come from?
Well, SERE is a very old institution. There are four major SERE schools, and there are some specialty schools, but there are four major SERE schools, and they have been in existence for over 50 years. They're designed to teach military high risk-of-capture students, what we call "level C" code of conduct, which is hands on code of conduct and survival training which provides them the basis, and a form of inoculation in seeing how totalitarian evil nations, who disregard the Geneva Convention and human rights will behave, if they are captured.
So we were trying to give our service members an idea of maybe something that was unimaginable?
Right. It was designed to inoculate a high risk-of-capture person by demonstrating to them what could possibly happen in captivity. Also to give them the skills to survive in the field, if they got shot down or they crash. Then they -- you know, they can go out and eat nuts and berries, and kill a bunny, and then they can move on and evade, if the enemy comes to hunt them. So they do survival evasion.
But if captured, we try to inoculate them into the stresses of what a captive environment looks like. How will you be handled? What are the objectives of the people who have captured you? If you know these things in advance, your captivity will become a battleground. You won't be a victim to an evil nation, which will manipulate you like a puppet. At that point, you have even ground to resist them. And then, of course, are -- the ultimate goal is to escape properly and return back to allied lines, or to survive your captivity and return home with honor.
And it's a brilliant school. It is clearly -- I mean the budget needs to be doubled for SERE school, certainly in this day and age. Because we do have these risks, and if you don't know how to behave, you will do things which will be detrimental to your health, like acting like John Wayne or GI Jane. And SERE school is designed to ensure that you know what's out there.
And this is why SERE is such a good program, because it literally gives you a short touch, like a little bit of the flu, so that you can resist the -- a big flu in the future. And every major prisoner of war, you know, that you would have heard about, Admiral Stockdale, John McCain, all of the captives who went to the Air Force School in the Navy, and Marine pilots in Vietnam, they're all SERE graduates.
SERE embodies the entire collective knowledge of how, one, people survive, and endured and resisted; and, two, how -- how in the -- how the enemy applied methods to break that resistance. So every torture, every act of barbarism, every war crime, somewhere there was a collective record.
And this, of course, is all managed by our parent agency, the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency, and they are responsible, as the executive agents, to have all that archival data and compile that into standards and lessons learned from captivity. So, of course, as you say, it is a -- a body of knowledge on both sides, both how resistance was done and, of course, how the totalitarian fascist evil enemies around the world did it, themselves.
And the simulated captivity is supposed to expose students to a -- well, it's a stock phrase that we all -- every instructor memorizes, "a totalitarian evil nation with a complete disregard for human rights and the Geneva Convention." And if you can endure at totalitarian evil nation with a complete disregard for human rights and the Geneva Convention, you can pretty much endure everything.
I've read, and even talked to, during this project, people who have been through various SERE schools. It's a memorable experience, I guess I would say.
Well, of course. It's intended to be a memorable experience from, you know, going out and starving and eating twigs and berries, and then going through the evasion process, and then the resistance and escape portion is designed to be memorable, because it intends to inoculate you.
We had a Marine pilot who came as a guest speaker, who was captured by the Iraqis in the first gulf war, and he said the most interesting aspect of his captivity with the Iraqis was he knew everything that was going to happen. He knew -- he was just like, "Okay, I'm captured. I'm coming down in your -- I'm coming down in your artillery site, so, you know, I guess there is going to be a beating since I just finished bombing you." You know, he goes -- you know, he gets captured, and then suddenly the beating starts. And he goes, "Okay, that's not so bad."
And then he goes, "Well, now they're going to hood me, and they're going to put me in a truck, and they're going to move me to some intelligence facility, but they're going to beat me on the way." And so they put him in the truck and they started beating him on the way. And he goes, "Okay, that wasn't so bad." He goes, "Now I'm going to go to the dank dungeon, and then they're going to beat me, and then they're going to bring me to an interrogator that speaks pretty good English. And then they're going to start beating me and torturing me." So he was fully prepared. And he said, you know, at points, SERE school was harder, because he learned to manage his fear, because he was forearmed.
Of the medley of techniques, tactics that you're exposed to, where does waterboarding fit?
Waterboarding is a demonstration tool. It is not a punishment. It is not intended to be a torture. It's an inoculation tool. But more to the point, it's a demonstrator.
When torture is applied, and right at the top of our torture slide, in our resistance lesson is why torture does not work. And the first line of that PowerPoint is, it's completely ineffective. Once a person learns what is coming, they gain the ability to resist. Even if it's just a little bit
And so waterboarding is a demonstrator to show just how an evil totalitarian nation can use one of many, many different tortures. And there are some horrible, horrible tortures out there. Waterboarding's a mild one, but it's equally as stressful. But it demonstrates that they have the ability to put you in a situation where you will comply.
Now, complying does not necessarily mean -- does not necessarily mean that you're giving the truth. You're giving an answer. And an answer can be anything. It can be a truth, a half-truth, a lie, a medley of all three in the same sentence. You know? And -- but we want to demonstrate to a student that there are ways that the enemy can bring you beyond your ability to resist. Waterboarding is just one of those ways. It's a good way. It's very fast. So when I hear people debate -- and I don't like to use the word debate, but when I hear people debate torture, and they say, well, waterboarding is effective.
Well, no. Waterboarding has the ability to make you talk. It does not have the ability to give you intelligence. You can say information, and there are some brilliant, brilliant documents which were written by captives, most notably Commander Lloyd Bucher, who was the commander of the USS Pueblo, an intelligence collector that was brought into North Korea. Where they broke him. I mean they -- they thought they broke him. Broke is not a technical term of art. It just means that they got him to comply with something after torturing him and his men for almost a year.
And they got a signed biographical confession of every aspect of his movement of his intelligence collection ship. However, he was ordered by Fleet Admiral Barney Google, and if anybody from that period knows, Barney Google was a cartoon character. It would be like ordered around by Admiral Doonesbury or, you know [laughs] -- I mean -- and his confession was the most hilarious thing you would ever read. I mean it was beyond fabrication. I mean he must have had a stroke of literary genius. And must have just enjoyed laughing in his little cell at how he got over on the North Koreans.
They thought they had a full confession. But he didn't break. He gave. And what he gave, he made them work for. They tortured him horribly. But what they got was a person who apparently complied and gave up nothing. I mean other than the fact that Fleet Admiral Barney Google was so secret that he was unknown even to the officers of the US Navy or his staff.
You said that waterboarding is quick. What do you mean by that? How soon during training do people ask for it to stop or whatever they can do to --
Well, this cuts down to what the president was saying. The president recently had made a statement that we -- the procedures that we use are safe, effective and professional. And that is waterboarding. Waterboarding, when done by a fully trained waterboarding team, is relatively safe. There is risk, because they are drowning you. It is effective, in the sense that it makes you comply, beyond your ability to resist for most people. And it's done professionally. A waterboarding team can strap you down in seconds. Before you even know it, you're being hit with the water.
And that's how my process was. I didn't -- before I could blink, you know, I thought, oh, this is going to be like they're going to simulate, give me electric shock or something, and wham. Water's going down my throat. And I go whoa. This isn't simulation at all. This is torture. And it takes seconds for it to start overcoming, and then you have to start thinking. Am I going to go through this? Is this real?
And then, of course, as it starts to trickle down into your trachea and bypass, you know, your epiglottis and push into your lungs and you can feel every drop. Every drop. You start to panic. And as you panic, you start gasping, and as you gasp, your gag reflex is overridden by water. And then you start to choke, and then you start to drown more. Because the water doesn't stop until the interrogator wants to ask you a question. And then for that second, the water will continue, and you'll get a second to puke and spit up everything that you have, and then you'll have an opportunity to determine whether you're willing to continue with the process. It can be a matter of seconds. It could be, you know -- for me, it felt like a lifetime, but for most people, it's a relatively quick procedure, relatively quick time before a person becomes compliant.
Now, in the case of a torture victim, that process doesn't have to stop, no matter how compliant you want to become. And even if you want to answer questions, you may have to give up information which is satisfactory to your interrogators or the process is started again. And that's the big difference.
Ours is a demonstrator to show, you know, as we like to say sometimes in the military, it sucks to be you. Admiral Stockdale used to say, torture makes you eat your heart out, and when you're on the rack, or getting the ropes or getting the water, you know, you think, okay, dying is better. But, you know, fast is a relative term. For me it was very fast. It wasn't a question of giving up information. It was just that the process is so professional, it can be over and done with in less than a minute.
The defenders in this debate call it simulated drowning. You have taken issue with that.
There is nothing simulated about waterboarding at all. I mean come on. Do we have to whip out the Dominican's torture manuals to go back and show you how really efficient waterboarding is done? Do I have to take you to the S-21 prison camp in Cambodia and show you a board as used by torturers? There is no simulation here. It's controlled drowning. Water is entering your system. It can overload your ability to gag it out. It does enter your lungs when put through the process long enough. You can die on the waterboard if your team is inefficient or ineffective.
That's why there is a doctor watching the procedure. That's why you have a staff psychologist watching the procedure. That's why the watch officer is carefully watching how you're strapped in, evaluating how fast they can get you out. And when it's time to come off, you're unstrapped, and then you get your opportunity to puke up your guts and move on.
But there is nothing simulated about this. And it's insulting to the process. It's made to grey the waters. And this is -- there is nothing grey about waterboarding. As used as an interrogation technique with the intent to coerce a victim who is unwitting or unwilling, it is a torture, and it has been a torture throughout history.
Throughout history, waterboarding has been known as "water torture." I mean whether it's the Chinese water torture -- when they say Chinese water torture, you know, that incessant drip, drip, drip. Well it's an incessant drip, drip, drip into your sinuses. It's a constant flow of water. Usually at a spill rate of water.
The Cambodians used to use a flower pot sprinkler, and tie you down, and they would give you -- of course it has all the little holes, so there is a constant rate of water going through there. You saw, in South Africa, the South Africans used to use the barrel, and the barrel's a very crude version, when they tie you up in your feet, and they just dip your head into the barrel. And it's actually -- you can actually resist the barrel, if you can hold your breath. Whereas other tortures, where you're strapped down on a board, in drowning torture, the water is introduced in there, so there is a guarantee that you're going to drown. They don't want you to have any ability to hold your breath. And when you can't hold your breath, of course, they introduce, you know, some form of stimulant, whether they cover your face with a rag, a wet rag, in order to make you, you know, overcome your gag reflex, or whether they slap you in the sternum or hit you in the belly. There is many ways that torturers, throughout history, have used the water torture or the drowning torture. And our way is just very professional and very efficient.
People are concerned that the focus on that one technique is diverting attention from lots of other techniques that have been both authorized and used by the United States over the last six or seven years. You are very familiar with many, many techniques. How do you react to that?
Well the beautiful part about this debate is that all of the techniques are hidden behind the "special access programs," classification routine. Therefore, we don't really know what's being used. I don't know. I don't know whether they're using stress positions, which, by the way, were outlawed by the Israeli Supreme Court in the late '90s, the stress positions which they bend you over chairs, or put you up against a wall, in order to induce lactic acid build up in your muscles, which are excruciatingly painful. I mean they're very painful.
So that's what a stress position is, whatever the actual position is.
Right. Whether they keep you in pushup position. I mean they do this in boot camp, try to keep you in pushup position. However, it can become very painful if there is some way to keep you in that position, or they hold you up in that position; but again, these things were outlawed.
Now, there are a variety of things. I don't know whether they're using the ropes, which was a North Vietnamese torture, which every prisoner in the Hanoi Hilton went through, which Admiral Stockdale, himself, said was just one of the worst tortures. We don't know.
What's the ropes?
Well the ropes is where they tie your wrists and elbows behind you into a V-shape, and then they tie off your wrists, and they pull it up completely behind you in a straight line until -- and up until your shoulders pop out of the sockets. Then they pull it over your head, and then pull your muscles towards you. They completely pull your arms from behind you to in front of you.
Now, I don't know. All I know is that that is not what the real debate is. The real debate here is not about waterboarding. The real debate is not about the ropes or slapping or stress positions or belly slap or any of those things, which apparently were taken from my community, the SERE community, for our own defense and applied as coercion tools.
The debate here, is America a nation that embraces torture? Now, we have a long history from the time General George Washington saw his prisoners being executed by the British, and he swore that no one -- no American soldier would treat a prisoner that way. We have never, as a nation, accepted this as a formal policy for our military people. We have always fought the good fight.
Had it occurred before? Sure? I'm sure it happened in field expedient situations in an unauthorized manner. But as a national policy? We're at the front -- we are at the dividing line to whether the fabric that's America now will willfully be accepted as a torture state. Now, that idea is disgusting to me. I come from a family -- we have a hundred years of combined military service among seven family members. My father served 24 years active duty and 15 more years in reserve duty, and this is not who I was raised to be. My father fought in World War II. My brothers fought in Vietnam and did service.
This is not what America is. We are not a nation of torturers. And we need to draw that line right there. We need to draw that line not just for the political decision makers and the pundits. This question needs to come down to the service members, and it needs to be hammered, and hammered, and hammered into their head again.
Just yesterday, the Secretary of Defense -- sorry, Secretary of the Army made a statement reiterating that waterboarding is torture, and is not authorized for use by any US military personnel. And I praise that. Because the tarnished honor that we have from Abu Ghraib is now starting to be seen within the defense establishment itself as a negative towards anything positive that we want to do. Fighting an honorable fight is a force multiplier. And let me tell you. I have been around terrorists my entire career. I don't want to hear anybody come and tell me that we -- this is a different war, and we have to do it differently. No. What we had was a failure in homeland defense on September 11th. That's all. Homeland defense. We had a failure in intelligence, because the imagination of the counterterrorism people, after the USS Cole attack, was that nothing like this could occur.
So this is where we are. We, as a nation, are in a position to where we must decide now, this year, are we a nation that accepts torture or are we a nation of honor?
I have no idea who the idiot is that took the entire history of the brutality and inhumanity and -- of all of the American captives in the history of this nation and would flip that on its head and take the techniques from the torturers and murders who had held our service people and civilians and hostages in captivity, and could somehow take that template which we called SERE school resistance training, and say, hey, this would be a great template for Guantanamo Bay.
Whoever did it, did it consciously, knowing that they were choosing totalitarian tactics, which we were defending against, and applied them as an American technique to handle detainees. Now, was it pain, was it revenge, was it just mindless attempt to get deeper into the war? I don't know. But all I know is that it will hurt us for decades to come. Decades. Our people will all be subjected to these tactics, because we have authorized them for the world now. How it got to Guantanamo is a crime and somebody needs to figure out who did it, how they did it, who authorized them to do it, and shut it down because our servicemen will suffer for years.
I was watching al-Jazeera, and I was listening to the Arabic, and it was a captive who had been released from Guantanamo Bay. And he got up on television, and he started showing a stress position against a wall. And I said, hey. That's a stress position. You know. Stress positions are what we do at SERE, you know, in an effort to show how pain can be inflicted upon a person with no marks. And this guy was saying, I was held up for hours and hours. And I thought hours? Hours? In that position? I said I couldn't go five minutes. Most of our students can't go a minute. But they were forced up and they were held up. And I thought, oh, my God.
I e-mailed a buddy of mine. I said, "Hey, I just saw something on al-Jazeera. Why is this guy describing SERE tactics?" And he goes, "I don't want to be the one to tell you, but they came and they got our manuals," you know. JPRA, Joint Personnel Recovery Agency, asked for all of our manuals to be sent to them. Each of the SERE schools. Our manuals on how we carry out our "simulated totalitarian evil nation, which has a complete disregard for human rights and Geneva Convention."
And so the SERE body of knowledge of evil coercive tactics and techniques for interrogation of our enemies, for at least 50 years, quite possibly, you know, since the beginning of this nation, were taken as this template. And were just applied to detainee handling, because it was efficient. It was also, I believe, also illegal.
All I know now is that anyone that's captured in the future, our enemies will say, you didn't do it in Guantanamo Bay. We're not going to do it for you. You didn't do it in Abu Ghraib. We're going to interrogate you and we're going to use coercive techniques. And it's not torture, because your president says it's not torture. It's enhanced interrogation techniques.
You've lost your shield. How am I supposed to have a service member counter that? What's he going to do? Whip out Geneva Convention Article 17? We don't even authorize Geneva Convention Article 17. I understand people are being held in close confinement. That's a violation of Geneva Convention Article 21. We teach our students to whip out the Geneva Convention Article and take your punishment, but you need to stand your ground, and you need to know what your rights are in captivity. And people will say, well, that's what honored prisoners of war, people who are fighting honorably get. Well, no. That's what human beings get. You know. And the International Convention on Human Rights tells you that this is how individuals should be treated.
And as an intelligence professional, I know if we treat a person well, I have a better chance of getting valuable intelligence. I may co-opt that person. I may send this guy back into the organization as my agent. No opportunity for that. We showed them what they think we are. Osama bin Laden has always called us people with a disregard for human rights, animals, beasts, you know, ungodly. The very things we used to call the Communists. But most interesting is that we have gone well out of our way to prove it. And we have validated everything he said. And we're created a virtual SERE school for their people, because their captives -- people are being released from Guantanamo Bay, and Camp Bucca, and Abu Ghraib and Bagram Air Base. And they're going back and they're going on television and they're talking. They're saying this is how I was held, this is how I resisted, I trusted in the law, and I got through this five years of this horrible mess.
And there's people down there writing this all down, and it will be in their next virtual manual which will go out on the Internet, if it's not already there. And when it comes time to, you know, to give them stress and duress, they'll laugh. They'll quote the Koran to themselves, they'll keep the faith with their fellow prisoners. They will endure it, and we will get nothing, because we only are resorting to coercive techniques.
People who are, you know, pro waterboarding. Let's be frank here. If you believe in this, and you think it's a technique we need to have on the book, you're pro torture. Period. There is no black -- there is no grey area here. You are either for torture, all right, which means that you are against what it is that this country stands for, for the last 200 years. Or you are anti torture, and it means that you are standing up for the honor of this nation. That's the only way that I'll describe this discussion.
But people will say, but our enemies behead us. Yes. They're terrorists. I've simulated being a terrorist. And that's fine, because terrorists are outside of the entire system. But we, as a nation of laws, must remain within our own system or we meet their objectives. We fulfill their own wishes. We want -- we need to prove America as a terrorist state, that they're doing torture, and that they will abuse us. They say this in their propaganda. The next thing you know, we do it for them. So we meet their own information objectives, and then they put it out. They don't have to do a thing.
In late 2002, a document was put out called -- literally its title is "SERE Standing Operative Procedure" for GTMO. And I'm going to quote to you. "The premise behind this is that the interrogation tactics used at US military SERE schools are appropriate for use in real world interrogations. These tactics and techniques are used at SERE school to break SERE detainees. The same tactics and techniques can be used to break real detainees during interrogation operations."
Someone needs to go to jail. That's all there is to it. This is disgusting. Thousands of service members, thousands, went through that process and were tortured around the world. People died to -- so that we could have those techniques brought out and shown our service member how to resist it. It's disgusting. How could they dare take this? How could they so -- how could they dishonor us like that? Every ex-captive in this nation should be standing up against this. They literally went and took the techniques of the North Vietnamese and said we could use it to break them? I didn't know that, by the way. I'm pretty pissed. I mean this is ridiculous.
What we've done here clearly is that the simulated Communist, you know, fascist totalitarian, you know, dictatorial nation that we use as a template for SERE, has been recreated in Guantanamo Bay, if I read this correctly. So, you know, so what we're getting here is we have recreated our enemy's methodologies in Guantanamo. And we've put it into their head that mock -- did they do mock executions? Did they keep them constantly in fear of their lives?
Okay. That's exactly what our enemies were doing to us. That's exactly what our enemies -- you know, what the Gestapo did. That's exactly what the Japanese did in the Pacific, what the North Koreans did, what the North Vietnamese did. Even what the Serbians did to our captives in Serbia. Definitely, what the intelligence branches of Saddam Hussein did. This is mind-boggling. And it's a disgrace. I mean this should never have happened, ever. Which means now all of our defensive features of SERE are nullified.
We have broadcast to the world now that we use totalitarian tactics, techniques, and procedures against captives. And these guys are going to learn. They're going to learn, and they're going to use it. And in five years, we won't be able, in any environment, friendly, hostile, coercive or uncoercive. We will have professional resisters. We're going to get nothing.