Bruce Jessen, a senior military psychologist with offices in Spokane, played a key role in expanding the controversial use of torture against enemy combatants, according to the report released Thursday by U.S. Sens. Carl Levin and John McCain.
The torture policy – approved at the highest levels of the Bush administration over objections of many military officials – allowed the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency where Jessen worked to operate “outside its charter” teaching coercive techniques used at Guantanamo and other detainee facilities, the committee’s executive summary says.
JPRA efforts in support of “offensive” interrogation operations “went beyond the agency’s knowledge and expertise (and) contributed to detainee abuse,” the report says.
Many details of the complete report are still classified and are undergoing a publication review.
In a series of stories last summer, The Spokesman-Review reported that Jessen and his partner, James E. Mitchell, principals in Mitchell Jessen & Associates in the American Legion Building in Spokane, were subjects of the congressional inquiry launched by the Senate Armed Services Committee, of which Levin is the chairman and McCain is the ranking minority member.
Jessen and Mitchell have declined repeated interview requests. They’ve released one statement saying they are proud of their work for the government and oppose torture.
The newspaper, using published, unclassified documents, also reported on the agency where Jessen and Mitchell learned the techniques: the JPRA’s “White Bluffs Facility” west of Spokane. The agency oversees Fairchild Air Force Base’s Survival School and teaches Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape techniques to government employees headed overseas.
The agency’s SERE training – designed to prepare American soldiers and other U.S. personnel to resist coercive techniques by enemies who refuse to follow international protocol on the treatment of prisoners – was perverted in the Bush administration, the new report says.
Levin’s committee spent more than 18 months on its investigation, reviewing thousands of documents and holding public hearings in June and September.
“As we began to dig into what happened, the influence of SERE resistance training techniques on our interrogation policies and practices became more and more obvious and became the focus of our investigation,” Levin said in a statement released Thursday with the report.
“These techniques were designed to give our students a taste of what they might be subjected to if captured by a ruthless, lawless enemy … (they) were never intended to be used against detainees in U.S. custody,” Levin said.
The techniques included stripping detainees naked, putting them in stress positions, using dogs to scare them, hooding them, depriving them of sleep, blasting loud music for hours, and waterboarding – simulated drowning.
The committee discovered that the SERE program’s influence on the interrogation of detainees started in April 2002, when Jessen, the senior SERE psychologist at JPRA, circulated a “draft exploitation plan” to JPRA Commander Randy Moulton and other officials.
“The contents of that plan remain classified but Dr. Jessen’s initiative is indicative of the interest in JPRA’s senior leadership in expanding the agency’s role,” the report says.
Three months later, the Department of Defense’s deputy general counsel for intelligence, Richard Shiffrin, contacted JPRA seeking detailed information on SERE techniques.
The JPRA replied, listing sensory deprivation, sleep disruptions, stress positions, waterboarding, slapping and “treating a person like an animal,” the report says.
Some military officials objected to the coercive techniques. For instance, the Defense Department’s Criminal Investigative Task Force “was troubled with the rationale that techniques used to harden resistance to interrogations would be the basis for the utilization of techniques to obtain information,” the report says.
The Air Force, the Army, the Navy and the Joint Chiefs of Staff had significant concerns and asked for more policy review, but they were overruled by the White House.
The new torture policies were first implemented in Afghanistan and then spread to Iraq and Guantanamo. When evidence first surfaced with photos taken at Abu Ghraib, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz tried to defuse public outrage by saying detainee abuse was the result of “a few bad apples.”
That claim was “simply false,” Levin said. The Armed Services Committee inquiry reached the opposite conclusion:
•In an unprecedented request, the Department of Defense’s general counsel first solicited information from the JPRA on detainee exploitation using SERE techniques in December 2001.
•President Bush in February 2002 determined that humane treatment called for in the Geneva Conventions didn’t apply to al-Qaida or Taliban detainees – clearing the way for the use of the SERE techniques.
•The CIA added its approval. In an October 2002 meeting with Guantanamo staff, Jonathan Fredman, the CIA’s chief counsel, said anti-torture statutes are written “vaguely” and added, “if the detainee dies you’re doing it wrong.” The Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel explicitly approved waterboarding as a CIA interrogation technique.
•Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld’s December 2002 approval of aggressive techniques based on SERE at Guantanamo Bay was a “direct cause of detainee abuse there.”
•In late 2003, prisoner abuse appeared in Iraq at Abu Ghraib after the same practices had been used in Afghanistan and Guantanamo. In September 2003, the JPRA sent a team to Iraq to teach the SERE techniques, which then were approved as “Standard Operating Procedures” for all U.S. forces in Iraq.
The Armed Services Committee investigation is “an effort to set the record straight on this chapter in our history that has so damaged America’s standing and our security,” Levin said.
The Mitchell Jessen revelations have sparked controversy among psychologists about whether they should assist military interrogations of al-Qaida members. At a sidewalk protest last August in front of their downtown Spokane offices, EWU psychology graduate Willow Moline said the work of Mitchell and Jessen at the detention sites “gives psychology an extraordinarily bad name.”