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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Psychologists’ CIA work called ‘voodoo science’

By Bill Morlin and Karen Dorn Steele The Spokesman-Review

Two Spokane-based psychologists working under contract to the CIA at interrogation sites for the war on terror practiced “voodoo science” that was brutal and ineffective, according to an article published Tuesday on

The article provides more details about CIA contractors James Elmer Mitchell and John Bruce Jessen, who worked previously at Fairchild Air Force Base in a classified military program that teaches airmen how to respond to enemy forces if captured.

“The CIA put them in charge of training interrogators in the brutal techniques, including ‘waterboarding,’ at its network of ‘black sites,’ ” the Vanity Fair article said of Mitchell Jessen & Associates, based in Spokane.

Mitchell and Jessen are linked to a program called SERE – Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape. The SERE techniques have been “reverse-engineered” since Sept. 11, 2001, to use against detainees in the war on terror, according to a recently declassified Pentagon report reviewed by The Spokesman-Review.

Mitchell and Jessen – subjects of a June 29 story in the newspaper – remain under investigation in a Senate Armed Services Committee inquiry into the harsh techniques used at interrogation centers including Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. A Senate hearing is expected to occur in September.

Their company is located at 108 N. Washington in the American Legion Building and employs about 120 people.

According to Vanity Fair, Mitchell and Jessen are paid more than $1,000 per day plus expenses – tax free – for their overseas work.

Mitchell, who has lived in Spokane, is now building his “dream house” in Florida, according to the article by correspondent Katherine Eban.

The psychologists did not respond to several interview requests from The Spokesman-Review or to a list of written questions submitted by e-mail.

But on Tuesday, the Spokane-based company said, “We are proud of the work we have done for our country. The advice we have provided, and the actions we have taken have been legal and ethical,” according to a statement.

“We resolutely oppose torture. Under no circumstances have we ever endorsed, nor would we endorse, the use of interrogation methods designed to do physical or psychological harm. We were not involved in any way with the scandal at Abu Ghraib or with the abuses alleged at Guantanamo,” the statement continued. “We were appalled by reports from both places.”

Contacted Tuesday in New York City, Eban said the article was the result of 10 months of work investigating the role psychologists play in military interrogations.

“That work brought me to Mitchell and Jessen and other psychologists behind the curtain who are into a regime that many familiar with their actions felt amounted to torture,” Eban said.

Her article provides new details about tensions between the FBI and the CIA over the most effective methods to interrogate al-Qaida leaders after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

The FBI successfully interrogated a high-level al-Qaida official, Abu Zubaydah, at a safe house in Thailand in 2002, using “rapport-building techniques” that produced valuable information, according to the magazine.

But CIA Director George Tenet soon sent his own team to Thailand, including Mitchell, to use an “alternative set” of coercive interrogation tactics on Abu Zubaydah, the magazine said.

The reverse-engineered SERE techniques developed by Mitchell and Jessen include waterboarding, sexual humiliation, loud noises, sleep deprivation and other methods to break down detainees.

Steve Kleinman, an Air Force colonel and expert in human intelligence operations, is quoted in the Vanity Fair article as saying he found it astonishing that the CIA chose two clinical psychologists from Spokane who had no intelligence background and had never conducted an interrogation.

“I think Mitchell and Jessen have caused more harm to American national security than they’ll ever understand,” Kleinman told the magazine.

The controversy over using reverse-engineered SERE tactics has sparked an intense debate within the American Psychological Association about whether psychologists should participate in interrogations that harm people.

Michael Rolince, section chief of the FBI’s International Terrorism Operations, told Vanity Fair the techniques amount to “voodoo science” because they get people to talk but don’t lead to credible information.

Physicians for Human Rights, a group that has denounced the government interrogation sites, praised the Vanity Fair article and called on the White House to repudiate the controversial techniques.

Mitchell and Jessen “committed serious crimes in violation of American criminal law. It goes well beyond what the FBI said was counterproductive – it puts our values in jeopardy,” said Leonard Rubenstein, director of the human rights group.