In several of those justice department memos, there's a claim that none of the interrogation techniques described in the documents produces long-term psychological harm. Here to explore that claim and why it's a central focus of the memos, is NPR's Alix Spiegel.

ALIX SPIEGEL: When the United Nations first proposed a legal definition for torture back in the 1980s, one of its most important assertions was that to constitute torture, victims had to experience severe physical or mental suffering. But according to Reed College political science professor Darius Rejali, author of "Democracy And Torture," the United States wasn't quite happy with that description. They proposed one clarification: A slightly different phrase to describe mental suffering.

DARIUS REJALI: Prolonged mental harm. This was not clarified further until August 1st, 2002.

SPIEGEL: Now news junkies might recognize that date. It's the date that Jay Bybee, a lawyer working in the Bush Justice Department, drafted two long documents spelling out the government's position on interrogation techniques. In the memos, Bybee spends a fair amount of time working through this phrase, prolonged mental harm, particularly that first word - prolonged.

REJALI: In the Merriam-Webster dictionary and a number of other dictionaries, they looked up what prolonged meant and said it must be long-lasting. And so, by that standard only, chronic mental depression and post-traumatic stress disorder would count as prolonged mental suffering.

SPIEGEL: And this is where Bybee's memo takes a really interesting turn. Here's his argument: Waterboarding, stress positions, sleep deprivation, those aren't torture. They're not torture because they don't produce prolonged mental harm. And how do we know that? Again, Darius Rejali.

REJALI: We know that this doesn't produce long-term harm because we've done it on over 26,000 of our own soldiers.

SPIEGEL: That's the number of American military personnel who have gone through what is known as the survival, evasion, resistance, and escape program, or SERE. The goal of the SERE program is to train military personnel to withstand torture and interrogation. Rejali says the program started during the Korean War, after the Korean government started releasing videos of captured American soldiers making embarrassing statements.

REJALI: A very common one was that they had considered the matter carefully and had realized that the communists were right and that in fact the United States was oppressing the Korean people and that communism was really the way to go.

SPIEGEL: Then the U.S. government came to the disturbing conclusion.

REJALI: The communists had found a way to basically reprint brains.

SPIEGEL: Which is why, Rejali says, they created the SERE program.

REJALI: So it trains you in a series of skills that presumably will assist you when you are in enemy territory or in the hands of enemy interrogators.

SPIEGEL: Specifically, it makes trainees do things like stand in stress positions, experience waterboarding and sleep deprivation and facial slaps. And all the other things apparently used on some of the people detained by the U.S. government, which is how come, the memo says, the government knows that these techniques don't produce prolonged psychological harm because almost none of the American soldiers in the SERE training program have developed PTSD or chronic depression. David Rifkin, a former Justice Department official who worked under Reagan and Bush 41 says, this is a persuasive argument.

DAVID RIFKIN: Dozens of thousands of Americans being subjected to exactly these techniques in exactly the same combinations finds no ill effects. That to me is enormously compelling. And I frankly don't understand why the critics are utterly refusing to come to grips to this. This is really new evidence that has never been presented before in the public domain.

SPIEGEL: But several research scientists who have studied the SERE program over the years are now coming forward to say that comparing SERE students with involuntary detainees is wrong.

GARY HAZLETT: Scientifically, it's probably not a fair comparison.

SIEGEL: This is Gary Hazlett, a retired psychologist who used to work at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Training Center and School. Hazlett did stress research on SERE trainees over a seven-year period and is one of the scientists along with the SERE researcher from Yale named Charles Andrew Morgan who has come forward to say that comparing these groups is what he calls scientifically inappropriate. Hazlett says ultimately the experience of the trainees and the detainees is completely different for one very basic reason.

HAZLETT: One group has a lot of control and can kind of say no and stop the process anywhere along the way and that doesn't really exist for the detainee group.

SIEGEL: As Hazlett points out, there's no saying I quit when you're detained in prison, so claims that SERE proves that there's no prolonged mental harm are, he thinks, premature at best. In fact, dozens of studies have shown that when people are exposed to trauma and perceive that they have no control over events, they are much more likely to experience prolonged psychological harm.

Alix Spiegel, NPR News, Washington.

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