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Listening to a Former SERE Instructor

I've been lazily tweeting instead of blogging of late, but this is worth jumping back into the fray for. Earlier this week, Rachel Maddow interviewed a former master instructor and chief of training at the Navy's Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape school, better known as the SERE school. The subject was torture. I'm repeating the interview in its entirety because I think it should be required reading in the debate.

RACHEL MADDOW: Joining us now is Malcolm Nance, former master instructor and chief of training at the Navy's Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape school, better known as the SERE school. He's now a U.S. government consultant on terrorism and counterterrorism.

Mr. Nance, thank you so much for joining us.


MADDOW: When you heard Ali Soufan today testify about his interrogation techniques as an FBI experience interrogator versus these force-based techniques that were reverse-engineered from some of the SERE techniques, does that resonate with you in terms of what you understand about the appropriateness of those techniques as interrogation methods?

NANCE: Well, it resonates with me for a very particular reason. One, the SERE program was started in the 1950s exactly because these techniques were being used against American servicemen. The SERE program and all the techniques carried out that we call enhanced interrogation techniques -- these were reverse-engineered from communists, from totalitarian states, and the Nazis.

So, of course, everything that he said about that -- about bringing the prisoner in, interrogating the prisoner and then him becoming recalcitrant and resistant, that's exactly what we want. And, of course, al Qaeda, of course, won by that, because they defeated the purpose of all the interrogations.

MADDOW: In terms of the argument that SERE-based techniques, these techniques, reverse-engineered as you say from what was done by totalitarian regimes, reverse-engineered and figured out in the '50s -- the argument has been made that because we do it to American troops as part of training it can't be torture, because then people like you who were an instructor at SERE could be charged with torture.

NANCE: That's ridiculous on its face. Listen, there's a whole class of people who I call now "torture apologists." And their full-time job is to go out and find spurious arguments in order to justify exactly why they violated, you know, U.S. legal code. And, of course, the standing order from General George Washington to treat prisoners with dignity.

And so, it's ridiculous. What we're doing is we're allowing a service member the opportunity to practice in a controlled environment over a few moments how to behave and how to react in order to act like Abu Zubaydah, in order for them to become resistant and for them to make sure that the techniques that are being applied to them don't work.

MADDOW: On the issue of sleep deprivation, specifically, sleep deprivation is one of those things that I think is at the top of the slippery slope when people start talking about torture. Well, sure, you don't want to get down to things like waterboarding or pulling people's fingernails out, but a little sleep deprivation never really hurt anybody. We've heard testimony that maybe some forms of mild sleep deprivation were used even before there were any new legal justifications ginned up in Washington to explain that.

What do you think about sleep deprivation in terms of its effect on prisoners in custody, whether it should be seen as part of torture?

NANCE: Well, these are softening techniques. All they did was they decide to bring the person up, keep him awake, whether they were going to walk him around, whether they're going to stand him up, whether they're going to give him loud music. And what you're doing is softening that person.

You're making that person, putting him into a state where you think he's going to be susceptible to answer questions. In fact, it's going to be even more difficult to get him to answer questions. And that, of course, you hit them with a harsh interrogation technique right after that, whether it's slapping or walling or some other physical harm or waterboarding, and you think that's going to snap them out of it -- when, in fact, that's the state we want you in. That's where you're going to be least susceptible to answer honestly. You'll answer gibberish.

MADDOW: That's the situation we want you in if you are an American and we want you to...

NANCE: Absolutely. So...


Well, in the case, then, so I guess we can sort of get there, we can follow the math problem. In the case of an actual ticking time bomb scenario, which is a faulting premise because things don't work out this way in the real world -- would you do SERE techniques on a prisoner in that scenario?

NANCE: No, of course not.

MADDOW: Any of them?

NANCE: No, of course not. Because one, it defeats the ticking time bomb scenario, in that all the prisoner has to do is not answer the question, or, better yet, the prisoner will lie.

And once the prisoner lies -- especially with al Qaeda members, let me tell you something, their ideology, they have a concept within their ideology called Al-wara wal'bara (ph), and that is absolutely devotion to their god, but absolute disavowal and hatred of anything that's not their god. Therefore, anything that they do to foil you is well within their plan. And they take great pride in that. And I'm sure when he was brought back to his little cage or to his holding cell, he saw every time that he defeated us, every time he didn't get an answer out of us or got some gibberish out of us, he saw that as a victory.

MADDOW: Yes. So, you got to outwit him.

NANCE: Well, what we've done is we've created al Qaeda SERE school for them.

MADDOW: Malcolm Nance, former master instructor and chief of training at Navy SERE schools, talked to you a few times over the years about this, and every time, I'm very grateful to have the chance to ask you these questions. So thank you.

NANCE: My pleasure.


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