Two psychologists’ role in CIA torture program comes into focus
In the “Salt Pit,” a then-secret CIA prison in Afghanistan, John “Bruce” Jessen watched carefully in late 2002 as five agency officers rushed into a darkened cell and grabbed an Afghan detainee named Gul Rahman.
“It was thoroughly planned and rehearsed,” Jessen later explained, according to a CIA investigator’s report. “They dragged him outside, cut off his clothes and secured him with Mylar tape,” before beating him and forcing him to run wearing a hood. When he fell, they dragged him down dirt passageways, leaving abrasions up and down his body.
Jessen added a critique. “After something like this is done, interrogators should speak to the prisoner to give [him] something to think about,” he told the investigator.
On Nov. 20, 2002, Rahman was found dead in his unheated cell. He was naked from the waist down and had been chained to a concrete floor. An autopsy concluded that he probably froze to death.
The death in custody did little to slow the “enhanced interrogation techniques” that Jessen and another psychologist, James E. Mitchell, helped design and apply for the CIA between 2002 and 2009, according to a Senate Intelligence Committee report released last week. A company they formed in 2005 was paid a total of $81.1 million.
In a brief telephone interview, Mitchell, now 63, retired and living in Land O’ Lakes, Fla., disputed the accuracy of the Senate report that details his and Jessen’s roles in the now barred CIA interrogation program.
“Go ahead and smear me if you want,” Mitchell said. “A lot of what’s written in the Senate … report is just flat-out wrong. It’s taken out of context.”
Jessen, who lives in Spokane, Wash., did not return phone calls. Their company has been disbanded.
As lieutenant colonels in the Air Force, the two psychologists had devoted their military careers to studying how various forms of torture had affected American servicemen taken captive in the Korean and Vietnam wars.
Working at the school for survival, evasion, resistance and escape, known as SERE, at Fairchild Air Force Base near Spokane, they trained U.S. airmen how to resist and survive if they were captured by countries that do not adhere to the Geneva Convention.
In the frantic days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, high-ranking officers in the Pentagon sought their advice on whether sleep deprivation, stripping and stress positions — part of the course to prepare downed airmen — could be used instead to break resistance of terrorism suspects and extract vital information on future threats.
In December 2001, Defense Department lawyers asked Jessen’s military unit for advice on “exploitation” of prisoners, according to a 2008 report by the Senate Armed Services Committee. Officers at Jessen’s supervising command, the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency, were quick to trumpet the unit’s potential usefulness in the newly declared war on terrorism.
“I believe our niche lies in the fact that we can provide the ability to exploit personnel based on how our enemies have done this thing over the last five decades,” one wrote.
Precisely how Mitchell and Jessen got to the CIA is unclear. Neither psychologist — who are referred to by the pseudonyms Grayson Swigert and Hammond Dunbar in the Senate Intelligence Committee report — had experience as an interrogator, specialized knowledge of Al Qaeda, a background in terrorism, or any relevant regional, cultural or linguistic expertise, according to document.
Moreover, the CIA did not seek them out “after a decision was made to use coercive interrogation techniques; rather, [they] played a role in convincing the CIA to adopt such a policy,” the report says.
But on April 15, 2002, they were at a secret CIA prison in Thailand supervising an interrogation of the CIA’s first Al Qaeda prisoner, Abu Zubaydah, who had been captured in Pakistan.
The early interrogation was relatively benign. Zubaydah, who was recovering from gunshot wounds, was put in an all-white room with bright lights. Guards wore all black uniforms, including gloves, ski masks and goggles, and communicated only by hand signals. Loud rock music was played to “enhance his sense of hopelessness.”
In meetings at CIA headquarters in early July that year, Mitchell proposed trying the more coercive methods he had studied at SERE. He gave the CIA a list of 12 techniques they could employ against captives, including mock burials and “use of insects” to terrify captives and ensure compliance.
On July 24, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft verbally approved 10 “enhanced” techniques, including the use of insects, although that was later revoked. Mock burials were not approved, although the Senate report says interrogators conducted at least two mock executions.
Two days later, Ashcroft also approved use of the waterboard. It involves tying a captive onto a board, with the head lower than the feet, and pouring water into the nose and mouth to induce the agonizing sensation of drowning.
The Air Force had banned waterboarding in its training, so Mitchell and Jessen had no experience with it. But they called it an “absolutely convincing technique,” according to the Senate report, to break captives’ resistance, along with stress positions, slapping, slamming prisoners into walls and other painful methods.
In August, they were back in Thailand. “According to CIA records, only … [Mitchell and Jessen] were to have contact with Abu Zubaydah,” the report says. Other CIA personnel, including medical personnel, “were only to observe.”
Shortly before noon on Aug. 4, Zubaydah was stripped naked, shackled, hooded and slammed into a concrete wall. He was then placed in a coffin-like box. At 6:20 that night, he was waterboarded for the first time.
He coughed, vomited and had “involuntary spasms of the torso and extremities,” the CIA noted. In an email titled “So it begins,” a medical officer wrote to headquarters that Zubaydah “seems very resistant” to waterboarding and had provided “NO useful information so far.”
Those tactics — combined with face slaps, stress positions, sleep deprivation and other painful techniques — continued in “varying combinations, 24 hours a day” for 17 days. He was waterboarded a total of 83 times.
When he was left alone, Zubaydah “was placed in a stress position, left on a waterboard with a cloth over his face, or locked in one of two confinement boxes.”
In all, he spent 266 hours — 11 days and two hours — locked in the pitch-dark coffin, and 29 hours in a much smaller box. In response, he “cried,” “begged,” “whimpered” and grew so distressed that “he was unable to effectively communicate,” the interrogation team reported.
The escalating torment, especially the waterboarding, affected some on the CIA team. “It is visually and psychologically very uncomfortable,” one wrote. Several days later, another added, “Several on the team profoundly affected … some to the point of tears and choking up.”
Mitchell and Jessen “were frustrated that they kept beating Zubaydah up on the same question while getting the same physiologic response from him,” a CIA official in Thailand later told the agency’s office of inspector general.
Zubaydah had spoken freely to an FBI interrogator before the CIA team arrived, and provided extensive information on Al Qaeda activities, plans, capabilities and structure, CIA records show. The abusive CIA interrogations produced no additional revelations about threats to, or operatives in, the United States.
But a cable from Mitchell and Jessen to CIA headquarters portrayed the waterboarding and other painful techniques as a success and urged their use “as a template for future interrogations of high-value captives.”
The reason: The torture confirmed that Zubaydah wasn’t concealing valuable intelligence, they argued. “We confidently assess that he does not … possess undisclosed threat information,” they wrote.
Over the next six years, the practices that the two psychologists championed were used against 38 additional CIA captives, according to the Senate report.
Their reliance on waterboarding, especially during a June 2003 visit to the secret CIA prison in Poland to interrogate Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, was “life threatening,” a CIA officer complained. The suspected architect of the Sept. 11 attacks was waterboarded 183 times.
At one point, the Senate report notes, Mitchell and Jessen — who directed Mohammed’s interrogation — used their hands to cup a pool of water around his mouth so he couldn’t breathe. At another point, they waited for him “to talk before pouring water over his mouth.”
After their visit to Poland, a CIA staff psychologist wrote that “no professional in the field would credit” their judgments. Another warned that their “arrogance and narcissism” led to conflict with CIA staff.
The Senate report also cited concern as early as January 2003 that the two psychologists had a financial and ethical conflict of interest.
They administered painful techniques that “only they were approved to employ, judged both its effectiveness and detainee resilience, and implicitly proposed continued use” of their methods while they were paid $1,800 a day, one CIA officer wrote.
It is not clear when the two psychologists left the military. But in 2005, the CIA outsourced almost the entire detention and interrogation program to Mitchell, Jessen and Associates, based in Spokane, under a sole-source, classified contract worth $180 million. The company provided interrogators, operation psychologists, debriefers and security guards to the CIA’s remaining “black site” secret prisons in Lithuania, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
The company participated “in the interrogations of detainees held in foreign government custody.” The report does not say whether any of those also involved abuse.
In they end, the company was paid $75 million for services, plus $5 million in case it faced criminal prosecution or other legal liability. No one was charged, but the CIA also paid out an additional $1.1 million for the company’s legal expenses between 2007 and 2012.
According to the report, the CIA did not use “enhanced” interrogation techniques after Nov. 8, 2007, and held no detainees after April 2008. The CIA terminated the contract in mid-2009, several months after President Obama formally closed the interrogation program on his first day in office.
In its written response to the Senate report, the CIA acknowledged a “failure at all levels of management” when the interrogations began. But it defended Mitchell and Jessen, saying they had the “closest proximate expertise available to the CIA at the time the program was authorized.”
The Senate report says their interrogations produced no actionable intelligence about terrorist plots that was not already available from other sources or obtained without duress. Current and former CIA officials have said the program thwarted plots and saved lives.
Steven Kleinman, a retired Air Force reserve colonel who worked with Mitchell and Jessen at the SERE school, said it was tragic that they ended up using tactics they had spent their military careers defending against.
“It’s just sad,” he said. “They’re not evil, psychological geniuses who just came up with this stuff. Somewhere along the way they lost their moral compass.
“How did a system enable two guys who did such fantastic things in defense of this nation [to] end up developing a program that’s going to harm national security for decades to come?” he asked. “When you read the report, it’s excruciating. They have their hands all over it.”
Joseph Margulies, a Chicago lawyer who represented Zubaydah, tried to get Mitchell’s and Jessen’s psychologist licenses revoked after their role was first revealed several years ago. He filed petitions in Texas and Idaho, where they had obtained their licenses.
In a phone interview, Margulies said he was unsuccessful, in part, because he could not produce a client who had been harmed. Most who underwent the “enhanced” interrogations remain imprisoned on the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
“I think what they did is wrong. I think what they did is criminal,” Margulies said. “But I don’t think anything is served by making examples of them. They’re not demons or monsters. They made terrible mistakes.”
CIA Director John Brennan said at a news conference Thursday that some of the practices were unauthorized and were “abhorrent and rightly should be repudiated by all,” though he did not describe them as torture.
He said the CIA was unprepared to run a detention and interrogation program, and that it was developed on the fly after Zubaydah was captured in early 2002. He didn’t mention the two psychologists, but defended those who followed the legal guidelines issued by the Justice Department at the time.
“They did what they were asked to do in the service of our nation,” he said.
Times staff writers Matt Hansen and Brian Bennett contributed to this report.
Must-read stories from the L.A. Times
Get the day's top news with our Today's Headlines newsletter, sent every weekday morning.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.