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The US Military's Forgotten Sex-Abuse Scandal That Foretold CIA Torture in the War on Terror

In 1995, the US Air Force's torture training led to a court case and allegations that cadets had been abused, an eerie foreshadowing of the larger scandals that would come in the following decades.

As 2014 rattled its way towards the grave, a Senate report into the agency's interrogation techniques confirmed that it used brutal and ineffective methods to try squeezing information from suspects rounded up after 9/11. What was generally missed in the coverage of this coverage is that "Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape" (SERE), a torture survival program that the CIA's methods were based on, had already caused a national scandal back in 1995 because of the use of similar techniques. That year, television and newspapers reported complaints of physical and sexual abuse by US Air Force (USAF) cadets who had been through the SERE program.


The Senate Intelligence Committee report explained the CIA did not use experienced interrogators to design their program. Instead they turned to experts in SERE. This is a training program meant to prepare Air Force pilots and other personnel to deal with capture. According to the Senate report, SERE "exposes select US military personnel to, among other things, coercive interrogation techniques that they might be subjected to if taken prisoner by countries that did not adhere to Geneva protections."

In preparing their interrogation program, the CIA asked for advice from the Commanders of the Military's SERE school, and hired two retired US Air Force (USAF) psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, who ran SERE training. Mitchell and Jessen's company was paid $81 million for helping design and run interrogations, using SERE techniques. James Mitchell gave an exclusive interview to VICE News in December in which he confirmed that he had been involved in the CIA program and admitted to waterboarding Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks. He also disputed the report's accusation that he was inexperienced, saying he has decades of experience in interrogations and in dealing with the "types of people" who withhold "actionable intelligence."

"They dressed me up as a woman. They put me in a skirt, put makeup all over my face, and made me follow around one of the NCOs as like his little toy."


Even at that point, SERE had already caused controversy. In 1995, ABC News reported Cadets at the USAF's Colorado training base suffered abuse during SERE sessions in 1993. One male cadet told the ABC program 20/20, "They dressed me up as a woman. They put me in a skirt, put makeup all over my face, and made me follow around one of the NCOs as like his little toy." He was then partially stripped, tied to a bench, and another cadet was "made [to] get on top of me and act like he's having sex with me."

Another cadet described this humiliation and mock rape, saying, "The perception I got was they were trying to make him out to be sort of the—the love slave of the people who were running the compound. They would sit him up on a stand on their laps and call them, you know, their little girl or whatever, and—but they basically, like I said, treated him like he is their little love toy or whatever, in front of the entire camp."

A female cadet came forward with even more serious allegations. She had complained within the USAF, prompting two inconclusive investigations by USAF generals. She then sued the USAF for damages.

According to official reports of her 1996 hearing, the cadet entered SERE training in 1993 where "she was selected as the victim in a simulated rape and exploitation scenario." As she told the court, "she was forced to lie on the ground, her shirt was removed and her legs pried apart. She was hooded during the proceedings and does not know the identities of the participating cadets. Other cadets stood by and observed, joking about what was occurring." The papers say that the SERE training involved deliberate humiliation alongside sexual violence, as "the simulated rape was filmed and the videotape shown to other cadets."


The court heard that her "torture included being required to assume stress positions to the point of passing out." She was also slapped, beaten, held without food, and kept awake with "white noise," just like the CIA's prisoners would be years later.

But the judge also emphasized that the Cadet's abuse was "sexually charged," and "included having to kneel down while a male cadet put his crotch in her face and made sexually explicit comments to her, having her fatigues soaked with urine, and being forced to put a stick in her pants and call it her 'masturbation stick.'"

The former cadet's case was contested for two years, and was finally settled out of court. The amount of the settlement is confidential.

The USAF cadet's experiences that came to media attention in 1995 were echoed in the CIA's "enhanced interrogations" techniques, exposed in the December Senate Report, where detainees were forced to wear women's underwear and were subject to similar abuse. The sexual aspects were not necessarily the worst parts of the CIA interrogations—at least one detainee froze to death because of "temperature manipulation" and another was beaten to death. However, using sexual humiliation and abuse was a signature feature of War on Terror interrogations.

SERE was originally informed by the experience of US prisoners in the Korean and Vietnam wars. After two servicewomen who were captured by Iraqi troops during the first Gulf War were both sexually assaulted, it was decided that US troops should be prepared for this grim possibility, so "sexual exploitation" was added to the training after 1991. A 2008 report by the Senate Armed Services Committee detailed the US Army's own investigation into the 2003 abuse of Iraqi prisoners by US forces at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The investigator found that "what started as nakedness and humiliation, stress, and physical training (exercise) carried over into sexual and physical assaults." This "depravity and degradation" was "imported" and could be "traced" through interrogations in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay—where the SERE-based interrogations took place.

The significance of the 1995 scandal has mostly been overlooked: 19-year-old news reports generally fade from view. But this earlier abuse of USAF cadets already very closely foreshadowed what has happened to detainees at the hands of US security forces during the War on Terror. Both the Department of Defense and the CIA must have been aware of the 1995 scandal—it had led to national news reports, military investigations, and a court case. Many of the SERE specialists, including Mitchell and Jessen, worked at the advanced SERE school in Spokane, Washington, rather than Colorado, where the abuse scandal occurred. But Jessen and Mitchell were reportedly at meetings of military psychologists to discuss the training in Colorado in the early 1990s.

After the 1995 scandal, SERE training was suspended for USAF cadets for a few years, then re-introduced in 1998, but with the "Sexual Exploitation" element removed. Following 9/11, when US Vice President Dick Cheney was telling US forces to " work the dark side," the CIA turned to SERE as the basis for their new, brutal interrogation techniques, apparently including the elements that had been suspended in America.

The program that was supposed to protect US troops from sexual exploitation ended up subjecting them to it in 1995. In 2003, the US Army's captives in Abu Ghraib prison were victims of similar abuse. Whether there was a direct causal link, or lessons were not learned, Saddam Hussein's legacy of torture had come full circle, and had infected the US Army as history repeated itself.

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