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2 U.S. architects of harsh tactics in 9/11's wake


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POSTED: Thursday, August 13, 2009

WASHINGTON—Jim Mitchell and Bruce Jessen were military retirees and psychologists, on the lookout for business opportunities. They found an excellent customer in the CIA, where in 2002 they became the architects of the most important interrogation program in the history of American counterterrorism.

They had never carried out a real interrogation, only mock sessions in the military training they had overseen. They had no relevant scholarship; their Ph.D. dissertations were about high blood pressure and family therapy. They had no language skills and no expertise on al-Qaida.

But they had psychology credentials and an intimate knowledge of a brutal treatment regimen used decades ago by Chinese Communists. For an administration eager to get tough on those who had killed 3,000 Americans, that was enough.

So “;Doc Mitchell”; and “;Doc Jessen,”; as they had been known in the Air Force, helped lead the United States into a wrenching conflict over torture, terror and values that seven years later has not run its course.

Mitchell, with a sonorous Southern accent and the sometimes overbearing confidence of a self-made man, was a former Air Force explosives expert and a natural salesman. Jessen, raised on an Idaho potato farm, joined his Air Force colleague to build a thriving business that made millions of dollars selling interrogation and training services to the CIA.

Seven months after President Barack Obama ordered the CIA interrogation program closed, its fallout still commands attention. In the next few weeks, Attorney General Eric Holder is expected to decide whether to begin a criminal investigation, in which the psychologists' role is likely to come under scrutiny. The Justice Department ethics office is expected to complete a report on the lawyers who pronounced the methods legal. And the CIA will soon release a highly critical 2004 report on the program by the agency's inspector general.

Dr. Steven M. Kleinman, an Air Force psychologist who knows Mitchell and Jessen, said he thought that loyalty to their country in the panicky wake of the Sept. 11 attacks prompted their excursion into interrogation. He believes that the result was a tragedy for the country, and for them as well.

“;I feel their primary motivation was they thought they had skills and insights that would make the nation safer,”; Kleinman said. “;But good persons in extreme circumstances can do horrific things.”;

For the CIA, as well as for the gray-goateed Mitchell, 58, and the trim, dark-haired Jessen, 60, the change in administrations has been neck-snapping. For years, President George W. Bush declared the interrogation program lawful and praised it for stopping attacks. Obama, by contrast, asserted that its brutality rallied recruits for al-Qaida; called one of the methods, waterboarding, torture; and, in his first visit to the CIA, suggested that the interrogation program was among the agency's “;mistakes.”;

The psychologists' subsequent fall from official grace has been as swift as their rise in 2002. Today the offices of Mitchell Jessen & Associates, the lucrative business they operated from a handsome century-old building in downtown Spokane, Wash., sit empty, its CIA contracts abruptly terminated last spring.

With a possible criminal inquiry looming, Mitchell and Jessen have retained a well-known defense lawyer, Henry F. Schuelke III. Schuelke said they would not comment for this article, which is based on dozens of interviews with the doctors' colleagues and present and former government officials.

In a brief e-mail exchange in June, Mitchell said his nondisclosure agreement with the CIA prevented him from commenting. He suggested that his work had been mischaracterized.

“;Ask around,”; Mitchell wrote, “;and I'm sure you will find all manner of 'experts' who will be willing to make up what you'd like to hear on the spot and unrestrained by reality.”;

 

A career shift

At the time of the Sept. 11 attacks, Mitchell had just retired from his last military job, as psychologist to an elite special-operations unit in North Carolina. Showing his entrepreneurial streak, he had started a training company called Knowledge Works, which he operated from his new home in Florida, to supplement retirement pay.

But for someone with Mitchell's background, it was evident that the campaign against al-Qaida would produce opportunities. He began networking in military and intelligence circles where he had a career's worth of connections.

He had grown up poor in Florida, Mitchell told friends, and joined the Air Force in 1974, seeking adventure. Stationed in Alaska, he learned the art of disarming bombs and earned bachelor's and master's degrees in psychology.

Robert J. Madigan, a psychology professor at the University of Alaska who had worked closely with him, remembered Mitchell stopping by years later. He had completed his doctorate at the University of South Florida in 1986, comparing diet and exercise in controlling hypertension, and was working for the Air Force in Spokane.

“;I remember him saying they were preparing people for intense interrogations,”; Madigan said.

Military survival training was expanded after the Korean War, when false confessions by American prisoners led to sensational charges of communist “;brainwashing.”; Military officials decided that giving service members a taste of Chinese-style interrogation would prepare them to withstand its agony.

Air Force survival training was consolidated in 1966 at Fairchild Air Force Base in the parched hills outside Spokane. The name of the training, Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape, or SERE, suggests its breadth: airmen and women learn to live off the land and avoid capture, as well as how to behave if taken prisoner.

In the 1980s,. Jessen became the SERE psychologist at the Air Force Survival School, screening instructors who posed as enemy interrogators at the mock prison camp and making sure rough treatment did not go too far. He had grown up in a Mormon community with a view of Grand Teton, earning a doctorate at Utah State studying “;family sculpting,”; in which patients make physical models of their family to portray emotional relationships.

Jessen moved in 1988 to the top psychologist's job at a parallel “;graduate school”; of survival training, a short drive from the Air Force school. Mitchell took his place.

The two men became part of what some Defense Department officials called the “;resistance mafia,”; experts on how to resist enemy interrogations. Both lieutenant colonels and both married with children, they took weekend ice-climbing trips together.

While many subordinates considered them brainy and capable leaders, some fellow psychologists were more skeptical. At the annual conference of SERE psychologists, two colleagues recalled, Mitchell offered lengthy put-downs of presentations that did not suit him.

At the Air Force school, Mitchell was known for enforcing the safety of interrogations; it might surprise his later critics to learn that he eliminated a tactic called “;manhandling”; after it produced a spate of neck injuries, a colleague said.

At the SERE graduate school, Jessen is remembered for an unusual job switch, from supervising psychologist to mock enemy interrogator.

Jessen became so aggressive in that role that colleagues intervened to rein him in, showing him videotape of his “;pretty scary”; performance, another official recalled.

Always, former and current SERE officials say, it is understood that the training mimics the methods of unscrupulous foes.

Mark Mays, the first psychologist at the Air Force school, said that to make the fake prison camp realistic, officials consulted American POWs who had just returned from harrowing camps in North Vietnam.

“;It was clear that this is what we'd expect from our enemies,”; said Mays, now a clinical psychologist and lawyer in Spokane. “;It was not something I could ever imagine Americans would do.”;

 

Start of the program

In December 2001, a small group of professors and law enforcement and intelligence officers gathered outside Philadelphia at the home of a prominent psychologist, Martin E.P. Seligman, to brainstorm about Muslim extremism. Among them was Mitchell, who attended with a CIA psychologist, Kirk M. Hubbard.

During a break, Mitchell introduced himself to Seligman and said how much he admired the older man's writing on “;learned helplessness.”; Seligman was so struck by Mitchell's unreserved praise, he recalled in an interview, that he mentioned it to his wife that night. Later, he said, he was “;grieved and horrified”; to learn that his work had been cited to justify brutal interrogations.

Seligman had discovered in the 1960s that dogs that learned they could do nothing to avoid small electric shocks would become listless and simply whine and endure the shocks even after being given a chance to escape.

Helplessness, which later became an influential concept in the treatment of human depression, was also much discussed in military survival training. Instructors tried to stop short of producing helplessness in trainees, since their goal was to strengthen the spirit of service members in enemy hands.

Mitchell, colleagues said, believed that producing learned helplessness in a Qaida interrogation subject might ensure that he would comply with his captor's demands. Many experienced interrogators disagreed, asserting that a prisoner so demoralized would say whatever he thought the interrogator expected.

At the CIA in December 2001, Mitchell's theories were attracting high-level attention. Agency officials asked him to review a Qaida manual, seized in England, that coached terrorist operatives to resist interrogations. He contacted Jessen, and the two men wrote the first proposal to turn the enemy's brutal techniques—slaps, stress positions, sleep deprivation, wall-slamming and waterboarding—into a U.S. interrogation program.

By the start of 2002, Mitchell was consulting with the CIA's Counterterrorist Center, whose director, Cofer Black, and chief operating officer, Jose A. Rodriguez Jr., were impressed by his combination of visceral toughness and psychological jargon. One person who heard some discussions said Mitchell gave the CIA officials what they wanted to hear. In this person's words, Mitchell suggested that interrogations required “;a comparable level of fear and brutality to flying planes into buildings.”;

By the end of March, when agency operatives captured Abu Zubaydah, initially described as al-Qaida's No.3, the Mitchell-Jessen interrogation plan was ready. At a secret CIA jail in Thailand, as reported in prior news accounts, two FBI agents used conventional rapport-building methods to draw vital information from Zubaydah. Then the CIA team, including Mitchell, arrived.

With the backing of agency headquarters, Mitchell ordered Zubaydah stripped, exposed to cold and blasted with rock music to prevent sleep. Not only the FBI agents but also CIA officers at the scene were uneasy about the harsh treatment. Among those questioning the use of physical pressure, according to one official present, were the Thailand station chief, the officer overseeing the jail, a top interrogator and a top agency psychologist.

Whether they protested to CIA bosses is uncertain, because the voluminous message traffic between headquarters and the Thailand site remains classified. One witness said he believed that “;revisionism”; in light of the torture controversy had prompted some participants to exaggerate their objections.

As the weeks passed, the senior agency psychologist departed, followed by one FBI agent and then the other. Mitchell began directing the questioning and occasionally speaking directly to Zubaydah, one official said.

In late July 2002, Jessen joined his partner in Thailand. On Aug. 1, the Justice Department completed a formal legal opinion authorizing the SERE methods, and the psychologists turned up the pressure. Over about two weeks, Zubaydah was confined in a box, slammed into the wall and waterboarded 83 times.

The brutal treatment stopped only after Mitchell and Jessen themselves decided that Zubaydah had no more information to give up. Higher-ups from headquarters arrived and watched one more waterboarding before agreeing that the treatment could stop, according to a Justice Department legal opinion.

 

Lucrative work

The Zubaydah case gave reason to question the Mitchell-Jessen plan: the prisoner had given up his most valuable information without coercion.

But top CIA officials made no changes, and the methods would be used on at least 27 more prisoners, including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who was waterboarded 183 times.

The business plans of Mitchell and Jessen, meanwhile, were working out beautifully. They were paid $1,000 to $2,000 a day apiece, one official said. They had permanent desks in the Counterterrorist Center, and could now claim genuine experience in interrogating high-level Qaida operatives.

Mitchell could keep working outside the CIA as well. At the Ritz-Carlton in Maui in October 2003, he was featured at a high-priced seminar for corporations on how to behave if kidnapped. He created new companies, called Wizard Shop, later renamed Mind Science, and What If. His first company, Knowledge Works, was certified by the American Psychological Association in 2004 as a sponsor of continuing professional education. (APA dropped the certification last year.)

In 2005, the psychologists formed Mitchell Jessen & Associates, with offices in Spokane and Virginia and five additional shareholders, four of them from the military's SERE program. By 2007, the company employed about 60 people, some with impressive r isum is, including Deuce Martinez, a lead CIA interrogator of Mohammed; Roger L. Aldrich, a legendary military survival trainer; and Karen Gardner, a senior training official at the FBI Academy.

The company's CIA contracts are classified, but their total was well into the millions of dollars. In 2007 in a suburb of Tampa, Fla., Mitchell built a house with a swimming pool, now valued at $800,000.

The psychologists' influence remained strong under four CIA directors. In 2006, in fact, when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her legal adviser, John B. Bellinger III, pushed back against the CIA's secret detention program and its methods, the director at the time, Michael V. Hayden, asked Mitchell and Jessen to brief State Department officials and persuade them to drop their objections. They were unsuccessful.

By then, the national debate over torture had begun, and it would undo the psychologists' business.

In a statement to employees on April 9, Leon Panetta, Obama's CIA director, announced the “;decommissioning”; of the agency's secret jails and repeated a pledge not to use coercion. And there was another item: “;No CIA contractors will conduct interrogations.”;

Agency officials terminated the contracts for Mitchell Jessen and Associates, and the psychologists' lucrative seven-year ride was over. Within days, the company had vacated its Spokane offices. The phones were disconnected, and at neighboring businesses, no one knew of a forwarding address.