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Shawn Vestal: ACLU finally calling Mitchell and Jessen’s torture program by the right name

There has long been a war of words surrounding the U.S. torture program developed and implemented by two Spokane psychologists with ties to Fairchild Air Force Base.

“Enhanced interrogation,” some called it. “Harsh techniques.” “Non-standard means of interrogation.” Vice President Dick Cheney once, approvingly, said we needed to use tools from the “dark side.”

Tuesday, the ACLU added a new one, a term that is incendiary even for this subject: “murder.”

In a lawsuit filed on behalf of three former detainees against James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, who were paid millions by the CIA for designing the torture program, the ACLU alleges that the two men committed war crimes, participated in human experimentation, and subjected detainees to cruel and inhuman treatment. The suit notes that 119 people were interrogated using Mitchell and Jessen’s methods. One prisoner, Gul Rahman, died.

“No one has been held accountable for his murder,” according to a narrative posted at the ACLU website. “An unnamed CIA officer who was trained by Jessen and who tortured Rahman up until the day before he was found dead, however, later received a $2,500 bonus for ‘consistently superior work.’ ”

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Spokane, is an attempt to extract justice and accountability from the men who were enriched by torture. It’s a worthwhile goal, though one of limited scope. The truth is that Jessen and Mitchell needed the full faith and confidence of the U.S. government, all the way up to the White House.

Mitchell and Jessen were former psychologists at the Fairchild survival school with no experience in interrogation or terrorism. They nevertheless became the CIA’s go-to guys for torture, helping to design and implement techniques ranging from sleep deprivation to strategic slaps to stress positions to waterboarding – all made possible by the Bush administration’s decision to ignore the Geneva Conventions and international law.

“Mitchell and Jessen conspired with the CIA to torture these three men and many others,” said Steven Watt, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU Human Rights Program, in a news release about the lawsuit. “They claimed that their program was scientifically based, safe, and proven, when in fact it was none of those things. The program was unlawful and its methods barbaric.”

The basis for their “work” was their time at the Fairchild survival school and a theory called “learned helplessness,” based on 40-year-old research by Martin Seligman involving the abuse of dogs.

“Dr. Seligman found that if a researcher inflicted uncontrollable pain on a dog for a long enough period, the animal abandoned any attempt to escape its confinement or avoid further pain, even if given the opportunity,” the ACLU said in its lawsuit.

Mitchell and Jessen’s roles in the program have been controversial for many reasons, including among fellow psychologists who objected strongly to the tenets of their profession being applied in this way. Earlier this year, the American Psychological Association issued a scathing self-examination, finding that the organization’s leadership colluded with the military to develop the techniques and resisted efforts within the APA to develop policies that would prevent its members from participating in torture.

One irony of the case is that a defendant in the lawsuit, who was tortured under the Mitchell-Jessen program, is now being treated by a much different kind of psychologist.

“The terrible torture I suffered at the hands of the CIA still haunts me,” one of the plaintiffs, Suleiman Abdullah Salim, said in a news release. “I still have flashbacks, but I’ve learned to deal with them with a psychologist who tries to help people, not hurt them. This lawsuit is about achieving justice. No person should ever have to endure the horrors that these two men inflicted.”

Mitchell and Jessen were handsomely rewarded by taxpayers for their work, and they built a short-lived but lucrative Spokane business. Between 2001 and 2005, they were individually paid more than $1 million as contractors.

In 2005, they formed a company “to meet the CIA’s increasing need for their services,” the lawsuit said. Mitchell, Jessen & Associates was headquartered in downtown Spokane and staffed by several of the men’s associates who also had ties to Fairchild. It was eventually paid more than $80 million.

“Mitchell, Jessen & Associates provided security teams for renditions, interrogators, facilities, training, operational psychologists, de-briefers, and security personnel at all CIA detention sites,” the lawsuit says. “By April 2007, 11 out of 13 interrogators (85%) used by the CIA were directly employed by Mitchell, Jessen & Associates. As of July 2007, the company had between 55 and 60 employees.”

Those lucrative years for Mitchell and Jessen were paralleled by some truly horrific ones for Salim, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Salim was a Tanzanian living in Somalia when he was captured by Somali warlords in 2003, turned over to the CIA, transferred to a secret prison, and interrogated according to Mitchell and Jessen’s “specifications.”

CIA interrogators first cut his clothes off and inserted “an object into his anus, causing him excruciating pain.” They put him in a diaper, put a hood over his head, and cuffed and shackled him for an eight-hour flight, during which he was chained to the floor of a small aircraft.

He arrived eventually at a CIA black site in Afghanistan, where he was subjected to overpoweringly putrid smells, crashing noises and loud music, and kept in total darkness. He was chained in painful positions for days, and prevented from sleeping. He was given a piece of bread in a watery broth once every two days. He was beaten, slapped forcefully in the face and body, stuffed into confinement boxes, doused repeatedly with ice-cold water, hung by his arms from a bar for days, kept chained to a wall and prevented from sleeping.

After two or three weeks of this, his interrogators considered him “broken” and “cooperative,” the lawsuit says. He was then moved to a different prison where he was kept in solitary confinement for 14 months, and then to the U.S. Air Force base at Bagram, where he was kept in solitary confinement for four years.

Salim was released in 2008 – not long after the Mitchell-Jensen program was halted – and given a certificate from the U.S. Department of Defense: “This individual has been determined to pose no threat to the United States Armed Forces or its interests in Afghanistan.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.