Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) is a training program, best known by its military acronym, that prepares U.S. military personnel, U.S. Department of Defense civilians, and private military contractors to survive and "return with honor" in survival scenarios. The curriculum includes survival skills, evading capture, application of the military code of conduct, and techniques for escape from captivity. Formally established by the U.S. Air Force at the end of World War II and the start of the Cold War, it was extended to the Navy and United States Marine Corps and consolidated within the Air Force during the Korean War with greater focus on "resistance training".
During the Vietnam War (1959–1975), there was clear need for "jungle" survival training and greater public focus on American POWs. As a result, the U.S. military expanded SERE programs and training sites. In the late 1980s, the U.S. Army became more involved with SERE as special forces and "spec ops" grew. Today, SERE is taught to a variety of personnel based upon risk of capture and exploitation value with a high emphasis on aircrew, special operations, and foreign diplomatic and intelligence personnel.
The origins of SERE are rooted in the leadership of Britain's MI9 Evasion and Escape ("E&E") organization, formed at the onset of World War II (1939–1945). Led by World War I veteran Colonel (later Brigadier) Norman Crockatt, MI9 were formed to train air crew and Special Forces in evading enemy troops following bail-out, forced landings, or being cut off behind enemy lines. A training school was established in London, and officers and instructors from MI9 also began visiting operational air bases, providing local training to air crews unable to be detached from their duties to attend formal courses. MI9 went on to devise a multitude of evasion and escape tools; These tools included overt items to aid immediate evasion after bailing out and covert items for use to aid escape following capture which were hidden within uniforms and personal items (concealed compasses, silk and tissue maps, etc.).
Once the United States entered the war in 1941, MI9 staff traveled to Washington, D.C., to discuss their now mature E&E training, devices, and proven results with the United States Army Air Forces ("USAAF"). As a result, the United States initiated their own Evasion and Escape organization, known as MIS-X, based at Fort Hunt, Virginia.
There were also several unofficial private "clubs" created during World War II by British and American pilots who had escaped from German forces during the war and returned to friendly lines. One such club was the "Late Arrivals' Club". This strictly nonmilitary club had a flying boot which was worn under the left collar of a uniform as its identifying symbol.
USAAF General Curtis LeMay realized that it was cheaper and more effective to train aircrews in Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape techniques than to have them lost in the arctic (or ocean) or languishing (or lost) in enemy hands. Thus, he supported the establishment of formal SERE training at several bases/locations (from July 1942 to May 1944) hosting the 336th Bombardment Group (now the 336th Training Group), including a small program for Cold Weather Survival at RCAF Station Namao in Edmonton, Alberta where American, British, and Canadian B29 aircrews received basic survival training. In 1945, a consolidated survival training center was initiated at Fort Carson, Colorado, under the 3904th Training Squadron, and, in 1947, the Arctic Indoctrination Survival School (colloquially known as "the Cool School") opened at Marks Air Force Base in Nome, Alaska.
During WWII, the U.S. Navy discovered that 75% of its pilots who had been shot or forced down came down alive, yet barely 5% of them survived because they could not swim or find sustenance in the water or on remote islands. Since the ability to swim was an essential survival skill for Navy pilots, training programs were developed to ensure pilot trainees could swim (requiring cadets to swim one mile and dive 50 feet underwater to be able to escape bullets and suction from sinking aircraft). Soon, the training was expanded to include submerged aircraft escape.
During the Korean War (1950–1953), the Air Force moved their survival school to Stead AFB, Reno Stead Airport as the 3635th Combat Crew Training Wing. In 1952, the United States Department of Defense (DoD) designated the United States Air Force (USAF) as executive agent (EA, as below) for joint escape and evasion.
The Korean War showed that traditional notions about captives during wartime were no longer valid as North Koreans, with Chinese backing, ignored the Geneva Conventions regarding treatment of POWs. This mistreatment was especially true for American airmen because of North Korean hatred of bombardments and airmen's prestige among soldiers. North Koreans were interested in the propaganda value of American captives given their new methods for gaining compliance, extracting confessions, and gathering information, which proved successful against American soldiers.
Soon after the Korean War ended, the DoD initiated the Defense Advisory Committee on Prisoners of War to study and report on the problems and possible solutions regarding the Korean War POW fiasco. The charter of the committee was to find a suitable approach for preparing the U.S. armed forces to deal with the combat and captivity environment.
The committee's key recommendation was the implementation of a military "Code of Conduct" that embodied traditional American values as moral obligations of soldiers during combat and captivity. Underlying this code was the belief that captivity was to be thought of as an extension of the battlefield; i.e., as a place where soldiers were expected to accept death as a possible duty. President Eisenhower then issued Executive Order 10631 which stated: "Every member of the Armed Forces of the United States are expected to measure up to the standards embodied in the Code of Conduct while in combat or in captivity." The U.S. military likewise began the process for training and implementing this directive.
While it was accepted that the Code of Conduct would be taught to all U.S. soldiers at the earliest point of their military training, the Air Force believed more was needed. At the USAF "Survival School" (Stead AFB), the concepts of evasion, resistance, and escape were expanded and new curricula were developed as "Code of Conduct Training". Those curricula have remained the foundation of modern SERE training throughout the U.S. military.
The Navy also recognized the need for new training, and by the late 1950s, formal SERE training was initiated at "Detachment SERE" Naval Air Station Brunswick in Maine with a 12-day Code of Conduct course designed to give Navy pilots and aircrew the skills necessary to survive and evade capture, and if captured, resist interrogation and escape. Later, the course was expanded so that other Navy and Marine Corps troops, such as SEALs, SWCC, EOD, RECON / MARSOC, and Navy Combat Medics would attend. Subsequently, a second school was opened at Naval Air Station North Island. The Marine Corps opened their Pickel Meadow camp (initially established by Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton) in 1951, where Marines would be trained in outdoor survival and, later, opened the Mountain Warfare Training Center (MCMWTC) in Bridgeport, California, where training could be done in Level A SERE (as below). "Survival training" for soldiers has ancient origins as survival is a goal of combat. Survival training was not distinct from "combat training" until navies realized the need to teach sailors to swim. Such training was not related to combat and was intended solely to help sailors survive. Similarly, firefighting training has long been a navy focus and remains so today (although survival of the ship may be the primary goal). Water survival training has been a distinct and formal part of Navy basic training since World War II, although its importance was greatly increased with the advent and expansion of naval aviation.
In 1953, the Army established the "Jungle Operations Training Center" at Fort Sherman in Panama (known as "Green Hell"). Operations there were ramped up during the 1960s to meet the demand for jungle-trained soldiers in Vietnam. In 1958, the Marine Corps opened Camp Gonsalves in northern Okinawa, Japan, where jungle warfare and survival training was offered to soldiers headed for Vietnam. As the Vietnam War progressed, the Air Force also opened a "Jungle Survival School" at Clark Air Base in the Philippines.
When Stead AFB closed in 1966, the USAF "survival school" was moved to Fairchild Air Force Base in Washington State (where it is centered today). The Air Force also had other survival schools including the "Tropical Survival School" at Howard Air Force Base in the Panama Canal Zone, the "Arctic Survival School" at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, and the "Water Survival School" at Homestead Air Force Base, Florida, which operated under separate commands. In April 1971, these schools were brought under the same Group and squadrons were organized to conduct training at Clark, Fairchild and Homestead, while detachments were used for other localized survival training (the acronym "SERE" was not used extensively in the Air Force until later in the 1970s).
In 1976, following accusations and reports of abuses during Navy SERE training, DoD established a committee (i.e., "Defense Review Committee") to examine the need for changes in Code of Conduct training. After hearing from experts and former POWs, they recommended the standardization of SERE training among all branches of the military and the expansion of SERE to include "lessons learned from previous US Prisoner of War experiences" (intending to make the training more "realistic and useful").
In late 1984, the Pentagon issued DoD Directive 1300.7 which established three levels of SERE training with the "resistance portion" incorporated at "Level C". That level of training was specified for soldiers whose "assignment has a high risk of capture and whose position, rank, or seniority make them vulnerable to greater than average exploitation efforts by a captor".
While initially only four military bases (Fairchild AFB, SERE), Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, Naval Air Station North Island, and Camp Mackall (at Fort Bragg) were officially authorized to conduct Level C training, other bases have been added (such as Fort Rucker). Individual bases may conduct SERE courses which include C-level elements (see "Schools" below). The required (every 3 years) Level C refresher course is commonly taught by USAF "detachments" (often just one SERE specialist/instructor) stationed at a base or a traveling specialist.
As the designated executive agency for U.S. military SERE training, the USAF's 336th Training Group continues to provide the only U.S. military career SERE specialists and instructors who are part of Air Force Special Warfare Operations and are utilized in varied roles throughout the Air Force and DoD. See USAF "Survival Instructors".
The DoD defines Executive Agency as "the Head of a DOD Component to whom the Secretary of Defense (SECDEF) or the Deputy Secretary of Defense (DEPSECDEF) has assigned specific responsibilities, functions, and authorities to provide defined levels of support for operational missions, or administrative or other designated activities that involve two or more of the DOD Components." DoD chose the U.S. Air Force as its Executive Agency for joint escape and evasion in 1952 and it was therefore the candidate to be chosen as the EA for SERE and CoC training in 1979. The Air Force remained EA for most survival, evasion, escape and rescue related matters until 1995. But, with the growing importance of personnel recovery (PR), the United States Department of Defense established the Joint Services Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) Agency (JSSA) in 1991 and designated it the DoD EA for DoD Prisoner of War / Missing in Action (POW / MIA) matters. In 1994 the JSSA was designated as the central organizer and implementer for PR and the USAF as the EA for Joint Combat Search and Rescue (JCSAR) Combat search and rescue. In 1999, the JPRA Joint Personnel Recovery Agency was created as an agency under the Commander in Chief, US Joint Forces Command (USJFCOM) and was named the Office of Primary Responsibility (OPR) for DoD-wide PR matters. JPRA has been designated a Chairman's Controlled Activity since 2011.
JPRA has its headquarters at Fort Belvoir and as organizing agency (OA) for all DoD "resistance" training, it has close ties with the 336th Training Group (which was given the role of organizing and operating the Personnel Recovery Academy or PRA). JPRA and the PRA now coordinate PR activities and train PR/SERE globally with American allies making extensive use of USAF SERE experts.
The first USAF "survival instructors" were experienced civilian wilderness volunteers and USAF personnel with prior instructor experience (and they included a small cadre of "USAF Rescuemen", i.e. United States Air Force Pararescue). When the Army Air Force formed the Air Rescue Service (ARS) in 1946, the 5th Rescue Squadron conducted the first Pararescue and Survival School at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida. With the move to Stead AFB and the opening of a full-time survival school, the USAF initiated the military's only full-time, career survival instructor program (with the Air Force Specialty Code 921). By the time the Air Force opened the survival school at Fairchild AFB in 1966, it also opened a separate "Instructor Training Branch" (ITB) under the 3636th Combat Crew Training Squadron where all Air Force Survival Instructors received their specialist training, composed of six months of classroom and field training, and initial qualification rating, which was "Global Survival Instructor". They then had to complete six months of On-the-Job Training (OJT) before they were qualified to teach SERE (aka "Combat Survival Training" or "CST"). Years of additional training for added specialties (such as arctic, jungle, tropics, and water survival, "resistance training", and "academic instruction") yield some of the most trained personnel in the U.S. military.
Currently, USAF SERE specialist/instructor training is conducted under the 66th Training Squadron at Fairchild AFB. After selection and qualification conducted at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas via a SERE specialist orientation course, potential SERE instructors are assigned to the 66th Training Squadron to learn how to instruct SERE in any environment: the "field" survival course at Fairchild, the non-ejection water survival course at Fairchild AFB (which trains aircrew members of non-parachute-equipped aircraft), and the resistance training orientation course (which covers the theories and principles needed to conduct Level C Code of Conduct resistance training laboratory instruction). USAF SERE specialists also earn their jump wings at the United States Army Airborne School. SERE Specialists who work in the "dunker" portion of the water survival course at Fairchild are certified through the Navy Salvage Dive Course. The SERE training instructor "7-level" upgrade course is a 19-day course that provides SERE instructors with advanced training in barren Arctic, barren desert, jungle, and open-ocean environments.
The Air Force's SERE instructors play key roles in DoD-wide training and in implementing other branches SERE training programs; both the Navy and Army send their SERE instructors to take the basic 9-day SERE course (SV-80-A) taught by the 22nd TS since these other branches have no career option for SERE. Because the Air Force has the largest and best trained SERE staff, it assumes diverse roles DoD wide, such as furnishing SERE training for Red Flag exercises.
SERE curriculum has evolved from being primarily focused on "outdoor survival training" to increasingly focus upon "evasion, resistance, and escape". Military survival training differs from typical civilian programs in several key areas:
Military survival schools also teach unique skills such as parachute landings, basic and specialized signalling, vectoring a helicopter, use of rescue devices (forest-tree penetrators, harnesses, etc.), rough terrain travel, and interaction with indigenous peoples.
The military "has an obligation to the American people to ensure its soldiers go into battle with the assurance of success and survival. This is an obligation that only rigorous and realistic training, conducted to standard, can fulfill". The U.S. Army has long taken survival training as an integral part of combat readiness (per FM 7-21.13 "The Soldier's Guide") and combat training is largely about an individual soldier's survival as opposed to the enemy's non-survival. "Survival", as a distinct part of modern military training, largely emerges in special environment operations (as shown in "Mountain Operations", FM 3-97.6, "Jungle School", the Marine Corps' mountain warfare training center, the Air Force's Desert and Arctic Survival Schools (as above), and the Navy's Naval Special Warfare Cold Weather Detachment Kodiak).
Certain skills have been identified that enhance every soldier's chance for survival (whether they are on the battlefield or not):
Military personnel are often subject to enhanced risks and unique situations and, therefore, beyond basic combat skills and specialty skills, many U.S. military personnel receive training in survival skills specific to their assignment. Such general survival training may include the basics listed above along with:
Evading an enemy consists of certain well-known basic skills, but the military has an interest in not openly discussing its practices since this may assist an enemy. Major militaries spend considerable time and energy preparing for evasion with extensive planning (routes, practices, pick-up points, methods, "friendlies", "chits", weapons, etc.). Some elements of hostile survival preparedness and teaching are classified. This is especially true for "resistance" training where one hopes to prepare those who might be captured for hardship, stress, abuse, torture, interrogation, indoctrination, and exploitation.
The foundation for capture preparedness lies in knowing one's duty and rights if taken prisoner. For American soldiers, this begins with the Code of the United States Fighting Force. It is:
Training on how to survive and resist an enemy in the event of capture is generally based on past experiences of captives and prisoners of war. Thus, it is important to know who one's captors are likely to be and what to expect from them. Intelligence regarding such things is sensitive, but in the modern era, captives are less likely to enjoy the status of "prisoner of war" and so to gain protections under the Geneva Conventions. American soldiers are still taught the standards of international law for humanitarian treatment in war, but they are less likely to receive those protections than to offer them. Because details cannot be offered, a few examples of well-known resistance methods provide clues as to the nature of resistance techniques:
The teaching of "resistance" is typically done in a "simulation laboratory" setting where "resistance training" instructors act as hostile captors and soldier-students are treated as realistically as possible as captives/POWs with isolation, harsh conditions, close confinement, stress, mock interrogation, and torture "simulations". While it is impossible to simulate the reality of hostile captivity, such training has proven very effective in helping those who have endured captivity know what to expect of their captivity and themselves under such conditions.
Under current DoD public policy, SERE Code of Conduct (aka "Resistance") training has three levels:
"Escape Training" has elements similar to evasion and resistance training – if details are revealed, it potentially helps adversaries. Much of this training has to do with observation, planning, preparation, and contingencies. And much of this comes from historical experience so public sources are revealing (such as the movies The Great Escape (film) and Rescue Dawn).
1. Water (ocean, river, littoral) Survival: Military personnel are much more likely to find themselves in a water survival situation than others. How to survive in water is taught at Navy Recruit Training, Navy SUBSCOL Submarine Escape Training, the Air Force Water Survival Course and at a separate SoF Special Forces Professional Military Education (PME) courses. Featured in such courses are topics and exercises such as:
2. Arctic (sea ice, tundra) Survival: Air Force aircrews spend considerable time flying over arctic regions Polar Routes and while modern arctic survival situations are rare, the training remains useful and worthwhile because its content obviously relates to winter survival anywhere. All U.S. military branches have some type of cold/winter/mountain survival training originating from hard-learned lessons during the Korean War (see above and below). Dealing with cold conditions presents several unique content areas:
3. Desert Survival: While desert survival training was part of U.S. military survival courses since their inception (see Air Forces Manual No. 21) the focus of survival training went that direction in 1990 with Operation Desert Shield Gulf War (1990-1991). Desert survival training is likely to remain a major focus in the foreseeable future. While there is a common mistake to think of deserts as hot, much of the Arctic (and Antarctic) is also polar desert. And under the definition of desert climate (a climate in which there is an excess of evaporation over precipitation), some deserts are deemed "cold weather deserts" such as the Gobi Desert. Because the unifying feature of all deserts is a lack of water, that is the focus for desert survival:
4. Jungle/Tropics Survival: Staying alive in the jungle is relatively easy, but doing so comfortably can be very difficult. There are good reasons why soldiers deemed JWS (Jungle Warfare School) in Panama "Green Hell":
5. Isolation Survival: Isolation is not just "being alone", it's being away from the familiar and comforting. Isolation survival has long been part of SERE in the "resistance" portion of training, but has more recently been recognized as worthy of broader attention. The psychological impact of suddenly finding yourself alone, lost, or outside your "comfort zone" can be debilitating, seriously depressing, and even fatal (via panic). Isolation survival also focuses upon the broader view of captivity to include kidnapping and non-combatant captivity. Isolation survival training has more focus on psychological preparedness and less upon "skills".
The vast majority of SERE/Survival Schools mentioned in "History" above are still operating. There has also been growth in private sector SERE Schools and training (which are not relevant herein). However, there has been a significant change in military use of private sector SERE training that is relevant here. That change has produced one odd outcome – the military has found it difficult to keep their well-trained and highly experienced SERE instructors because of lucrative private sector opportunities. The vast majority of those jobs require military SERE training.
Branch distinctions for SERE have become less clear or relevant since the creation of the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA, as above). Because the JPRA has "primary responsibility for DoD-wide personnel recovery matters," (which specifically includes Level C SERE training), it integrates, coordinates, mandates, and draws from all military branches as needed. It is also worthy to note that much of military SERE is viewed as "joint operations" and cross-branch training is common (or required). SERE training detachments (usually, USAF) often work with different branches, especially where bases have been combined as "Joint Bases" and for update/review training. In that regard, designating schools by branch may be less meaningful.
It is common practice for joint operation SERE training to be conducted at, through, or in conjunction with individual military bases.
The Army position statement on SERE training is clear: "The Army has an obligation to the American people to ensure its soldiers go into battle with the assurance of success and survival. This is an obligation that only rigorous and realistic training, conducted to standard, can fulfill." Like all military branches, the Army operates under DOD Directive 1300.7 which requires and specifies Code of Conduct training for military personnel. Because the Army views a large portion of its training as "survival" related and since the Army has more soldiers than the other branches, there are many modes and schools for survival and SERE training (as indicated above and below). Army Airborne School, for example is largely about surviving parachute jumps but is not deemed a "survival school". US Army Green Berets, Army Rangers, Delta Force and other SoF soldiers receive extensive survival training as an inherent part of their overall combat training (as well as specific SERE training).
The mission of the United States Army SERE training is "to ensure each student gains the ability to effectively employ the SERE tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) necessary to return with honor regardless of the circumstances of separation, isolation or capture."
The major "specialized schools" and courses for Army SERE training include:
The USN Center for Security Forces (CENSECFOR) of the Naval Education and Training Command (NETC) at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek–Fort Story promulgates the Navy's SERE training. The mission of the Command is "to educate and train those who serve, providing the tools and opportunities which enable life-long learning, professional and personal growth and development, ensuring fleet readiness and mission accomplishment; and to perform such other functions and tasks assigned by higher authority". This includes basic survival training for all Navy sailors and DOD Directive 1300.7 requiring "Code of Conduct" training (as above). The major Navy SERE schools and courses include:
The Air Education and Training Command (AETC) has over 60,000 personnel and is responsible for all Air Force training programs, including SERE training. In AETC, the 336th Training Group at Fairchild AFB, Washington has the mission to "provide high risk of isolation personnel with the skills and confidence to "Return With Honor" regardless of the circumstances of isolation." It is also the largest U.S. Military SERE training provider training more than 20,000 students, in 19 different courses, each year."
As with the other branches, the Air Force offers a wide scope of survival training within other courses, but unique to the Air Force is the stationing of career SERE specialists at bases around the world as renewal and upgrade SERE instructors, advisors, and PR specialists. In the mid-80s, the USAF Combat "Desert" Survival Course was established by the 3636th Combat Crew Training Wing and USAF Survival Training Schools began emphasizing "Combat SERE Training" (CST) instead of "Global SERE Training". The primary Air Force survival schools/courses are:
"Preserving the lives and well-being of U.S. military, Department of Defense (DoD) civilians, and DoD contractors authorized to accompany the force (CAAF) who are in danger of becoming, or already are beleaguered, besieged, captured, detained, interned, or, otherwise missing or evading capture (hereafter referred to as "isolated") while participating in U.S.-sponsored activities or missions, is one of the highest priorities of the DoD. The DoD has an obligation to train, equip, and protect its personnel, to prevent their capture and exploitation by adversaries, and to reduce the potential for the use of isolated personnel as leverage against U.S. security objectives. Personnel Recovery (PR) is the sum of military, diplomatic, and civil efforts to prepare for and execute the recovery and reintegration of isolated personnel." MSGID/GENADMIN/CG MCCDC QUANTICO VA REF/A/DODI O-3002.05//REF/B/CJCSM 3500.09//REF/C/MCO 3460.3| MARADMINS Number: 286/18 23 May 2018 announcing that "Training and Education Command (TECOM) in a joint effort with U.S. Army Forces Command, and with the assistance of the Joint Personal Recovery Agency, has developed a SERE Level A Training Support Package (TSP) that enables deploying units to self-train SERE Level A in an instructor guided group setting."
The U.S. Marine Corps operates jointly with the Navy and cooperatively with the other branches in much of its SERE training, but operates its own Level C course at the Full Spectrum SERE Course, U.S. Marines Special Operations School (MSOS), Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Marine Spec Ops often train with Navy Spec Ops and utilize Navy training when it fits their needs and there is no equivalent USMC course. The Corps like to stand apart and have their own specifications for required "Code of Conduct" training:
Level A is taught to recruits and candidates in Officer Candidate School and the Recruit Depots, or under professional military education (but note the JPRA note above).
Level B is taught at the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center, Bridgeport, California, and at the North Training Area, Camp Gonsalves, Okinawa Prefecture, Japan.
Level C is held at Camp Lejeune, as above, although some Marine personnel are trained at the Navy facilities listed above.
USMC courses or training with survival focus include:
Marines often participate in "exercises" and some of them have a survival focus.
President George W. Bush's declaration (February 5, 2002) that the Geneva Conventions regarding POWs did not apply to the conflict with al-Qaida or the Taliban as those "detainees" were not entitled to POW status or those legal guarantees of humane treatment  has led to serious problems for SERE training. The military Code of Conduct, based upon American adherence to the Geneva Conventions related to treatment of prisoners of war, gave American soldiers some legal and moral argument for their right to such protections. To soldiers who are legally required to follow the directives of their Commander-in-Chief, this declaration offered a potential excuse for harsh techniques or even torture by American personnel or those who captured Americans. (A soldier's claim that this was an "unlawful order" would be a difficult defense because the legal definition of torture - "intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering" - is less than resolved. The intent is hard to prove and the meaning of "severe" in this application is debated).
From its origins in the 1950s, the "Resistance" portion of SERE was based upon a firm belief in and commitment to the protections of the Geneva conventions (as above). That opposing forces chose to ignore those protections was the very reason for creating the Code of Conduct and the ensuing development of "Resistance Training" (as above). While it has since been thoroughly emphasized and shown through compelling evidence (as below) that some NON-SERE military personnel who falsely claimed to be U.S. "SERE Instructors" engaged in the unlawful taking of and misuse of SERE "training materials" (which were created for the purpose of helping U.S. Military personnel prepare for and resist the unlawful and immoral torture techniques being used by enemies) and then used those materials as "training guides" for developing torture and "enhanced interrogation" methods supported by President Bush, there remain some who persist in conflating "SERE Techniques" with "Detainee Interrogation/Torture" by misguided CIA and other U.S. military personnel.
By definition, there are NO "SERE Techniques" involving torture as the "R" in SERE is about "Resistance training" to assist American POWs (or captives) in resisting unlawful force or methods intended to compel them to act against their fellow prisoners or their honor as soldiers.
An online magazine article from June 2006 referenced a 2005 document obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union through the Freedom of Information Act in which the former chief of the Interrogation Control Element at Guantanamo Bay said "SERE instructors" taught their methods to interrogators of the prisoners in Cuba. The article also stated that physical and mental techniques used against some detainees at Abu Ghraib are similar to the ones SERE students are taught to resist.
According to Human Rights First, the interrogation that led to the death of Iraqi Major General Abed Hamed Mowhoush involved the use of techniques used in SERE training. According to the organization "Internal FBI memos and press reports have pointed to SERE training as the basis for some of the harshest techniques authorized for use on detainees by the Pentagon in 2002 and 2003."
On 17 June 2008, Mark Mazzetti of The New York Times reported that the senior Pentagon lawyer Mark Schiffrin requested information in 2002 from the leaders of the Air Force's captivity-resistance program, referring to one based in Fort Belvoir, Virginia. The information was later used on prisoners in military custody. In written testimony to the Senate Armed Forces Committee hearing, Col. Steven Kleinman of the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency said a team of trainers whom he was leading in Iraq were asked to demonstrate SERE techniques on uncooperative prisoners. He refused, but his decision was overruled. He was quoted as saying "When presented with the choice of getting smarter or getting tougher, we chose the latter." Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has acknowledged that the use of the SERE program techniques to conduct interrogations in Iraq was discussed by senior White House officials in 2002 and 2003.
It has been subsequently confirmed that in 2002 JPRA was asked by the CIA to provide advisors on topics such as "deprivation techniques... exploitation and questioning techniques, and developing countermeasures to resistance techniques". What has never been revealed is who the JPRA instructors actually were, but almost every source continues to deem them "SERE instructors". JPRA is not SERE and many of its resistance training instructors are not SERE instructors (they are from the Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Agency). The techniques they taught the CIA are not SERE resistance training methods (although they are related) - they are the work product of Bruce Jessen and James Elmer Mitchell. For example, "waterboarding" (probably the most controversial of the "enhanced interrogation techniques" proposed by Jessen and Mitchell) has never been used in resistance training as part of Air Force SERE training and therefore, neither psychologist had any experience with it. (Waterboarding was reintroduced to the curriculum for both Air Force and Navy SERE training in 2018.)
While "Resistance" is clearly part of SERE training, not all resistance training is part of SERE. The SERE community is about TRAINING and, within SERE, "Resistance" is about teaching others methods and techniques to help them deal with captivity and avoid exploitation. SERE instructors use "role-playing" exercises to allow students to experience simulated abuse, stress, and exploitation as might be expected if captured. Interrogation is something captives should expect and SERE instructors role-play as interrogators. While this means that such instructors must know how real interrogations might be conducted, their RT training focuses on effective role-playing in a VERY tightly controlled environment. Col. Steven Kleinman, a top intelligence officer at Fairchild AFB who was named the director of intelligence for JPRA in 2004, calls the "mistaking of role-playing resistance training as a basis for actual interrogations" a "critical disconnect" in the misinformation Jessen and Mitchell were "selling" to the CIA. When Col. Kleinman was ordered by the commander of JPRA to teach non-SERE soldiers the techniques that were used by role-playing "interrogators" in resistance training at SERE schools, he refused. (Note: Col. Kleinman was NOT a SERE officer, he was an "ISR" Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Agency officer).
Main article: Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture
On 9 December 2014, the United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released a report ("SASC report", hereafter) which detailed how contractors who developed the "enhanced interrogation techniques" used by U.S. personnel received US$81 million for their services and identified the contractors, who were referred to in the report via pseudonyms, as principals in Mitchell, Jessen & Associates from Spokane, Washington. Two of them were psychologists, John "Bruce" Jessen and James Mitchell. Jessen was a senior psychologist at the Defense Department who had worked with Army special forces in resistance training. The report states that the contractor "developed the list of enhanced interrogation techniques and personally conducted interrogations of some of the CIA's most significant detainees using those techniques. The contractors also evaluated whether the detainees' psychological state allowed for continued use of the techniques, even for some detainees they themselves were interrogating or had interrogated." Mitchell, Jessen & Associates developed a "menu" of 20 potential enhanced techniques including waterboarding, sleep deprivation and stress positions.
Over the six years following their hiring by friends at the CIA (Kirk Hubbard), Mitchell, Jessen & Associates would hire over 100 staff, bill the CIA for over $80,000,000, and lead the American military (and other parts of the government) into perhaps their greatest public relations fiasco. When 60 Minutes aired pictures from Abu Ghraib in May 2004, the shock was "heard around the world". Americans (for the most part) began hearing of "SERE" for the first time and still hear it today as more and more information about American torture becomes known. While Mitchell, Jessen & Associates hired ex-"SERE instructors" we don't know how many, if any, were actually "SERE", how many were private contractors who used the title "SERE Instructor", how many were CIA that called themselves "SERE interrogators" merely because they used Mitchell's and Jessen's stolen (classified) library materials that have been repeatedly misrepresented as "SERE" training techniques". They came from classified training materials (historical and instructional) used for curriculum development in military and JPRA Level-C "resistance training".
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