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

Spokane psychologists linked to CIA: Congress probes role in controversial interrogations

The American Legion Building in downtown Spokane is home to Mitchell Jessen & Associates. 
 (Brian Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
By Bill Morlin and Karen Dorn Steele The Spokesman-Review

Two Spokane psychologists are the focus of a congressional inquiry into the use of harsh techniques to interrogate terrorist suspects in Guantanamo, Iraq, Afghanistan and at secret military and CIA detention centers.

In an article published last week, the online magazine identified psychologists James E. Mitchell and John Bruce Jessen as key developers of the interrogation program – which the magazine said was linked to the CIA and likely violated the Geneva Conventions against the torture and mistreatment of prisoners. Mitchell was present during one interrogation and argued for harsher tactics, including electric shock treatments, according to a 2005 New Yorker article.

The interrogation methods, according to a recently declassified Pentagon report reviewed by The Spokesman-Review, are “reverse engineering” of techniques taught in the military’s SERE program, set up to train U.S. special forces and flight crews in Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape.

The SERE program is used by the Army at Fort Bragg, where Green Berets train, and at the U.S. Air Force Survival School near Spokane, where thousands of other trainees are instructed annually.

The theory behind the Cold War-era program is to expose soldiers to extremely harsh treatment during training – including sleep deprivation, pain and “waterboarding,” or simulated drowning – so they’ll be better equipped to resist if captured by forces that don’t adhere to laws on the humane treatment of prisoners, according to the report by the Pentagon’s inspector general.

Mitchell and Jessen have worked as contractors for the CIA since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and previously worked for the military’s SERE program, reported.

The magazine has published online since 1999 and focuses on American politics and culture. Reporter Mark Benjamin, who broke the story of the Senate investigation of the two Spokane psychologists, has done extensive reporting on prisoner abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad.

The psychologists’ names surfaced after Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, asked the Pentagon in May not to destroy any documents mentioning them or their consulting firm, Mitchell Jessen & Associates.

The Department of Defense responded by sending a “document preservation” order on May 15 to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other top Pentagon officials, according to

Levin’s Senate investigation will cast new light on the psychologists’ work and allegations of controversial human rights abuses in the interrogation program.

“It’s an issue he’s been interested in for quite a while,” said Dave Pollock, a spokesman for Levin in Washington, D.C. The Armed Services Committee isn’t ready to release additional details about the scope of its investigation, Pollock told the newspaper this week.

Headquarters are in downtown Spokane

Mitchell Jessen & Associates lists its corporate headquarters as the American Legion Building, 108 N. Washington, in downtown Spokane.

A company profile posted on the online TechExpo Internet site for people seeking national security sector jobs says the firm has 120 employees, and a city of Spokane business license indicates it opened for business in March 2005.

Officers of the company are Mitchell, Jessen, Randall W. Spivey and Roger L. Aldrich, according to the city business license.

The company also lists a mailing address in Alexandria, Va., not far from CIA headquarters and the Washington, D.C., beltway.

Mitchell and Jessen did not respond to requests for interviews with The Spokesman-Review, including a list of questions submitted by e-mail.

The CIA sent an e-mailed response Wednesday to an inquiry from the newspaper about the agency’s relationship with the Spokane consulting firm.

“For reasons of security and individual privacy, the agency does not, as a rule, publicly deny or confirm employment or contractual relationships,” CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano said in his e-mailed response

At the company’s Spokane office, light jazz plays in the public hallway outside Suite 205. Behind a large dark wooden door, there is no one to greet visitors who step inside a small entrance room, illuminated with bright track lighting. A wall phone is available to call a secretary.

“We’ll pass the request along,” the secretary said when asked about the availability of Mitchell or Jessen or any representative of the company.

Spivey, another officer of Mitchell Jessen, also operates Safe Travel Institute, RS Consulting and the National Hostage Survival Training Center one floor above in the same Spokane building. He worked previously for Tate Inc., a Germantown, Md., firm with a U.S. Air Force contract to train soldiers and airmen in survival techniques. He, too, declined interview requests.

Encountered in the hallway of the American Legion Building and asked about Mitchell Jessen’s work with the CIA, Spivey would only say, “I can’t talk about it.”

Spivey was a survival instructor for 12 years before becoming involved in the now-defunct Fort Sherman Institute at North Idaho College in Coeur d’Alene. The college spent $700,000 before closing the institute that was to teach anti-terrorism and hostage survival courses. In 2005, he became involved with Mitchell Jessen.

Like Spivey, Aldrich served in the Air Force at Fairchild and then joined the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency, a federal agency that provides the core training used at the Fairchild Air Force Base Survival School.

As recently as April, Mitchell Jessen & Associates was advertising for a $76,000-a-year instructor “in the fields of anti-terrorism measures,” according to an Internet job posting. The job, which required the successful applicant to relocate to Spokane, required a “Top Secret - Sensitive Compartmentalized Information (SCI)” security clearance. An SCI clearance is attached to a job considered so sensitive that a Top Secret classification alone isn’t sufficient.

Mitchell, the company’s CEO, spent years with the military training U.S. soldiers to cope with harsh interrogation when captured, according to several published reports.

Jessen, the consulting firm’s president, is an expert in how hostages cope with isolation, according to a 2003 Washington Times article. He was the Pentagon’s senior SERE psychologist until 2002, according to

Mitchell and Jessen advertised their CIA credentials at a 2004 conference of the American Psychological Association in Honolulu, the online magazine said.

SERE methods ‘reverse engineered’

The SERE program, established after the Korean War, studied the psychological reaction of humans to warfare and captivity and is a “storehouse of knowledge” about coercive methods of interrogation, according to a July 2005 article by reporter Jane Mayer of the New Yorker.

Mayer’s article, titled “The Experiment,” described how the military began to use SERE psychologists for advice on how to question suspected terrorists after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The New Yorker article was among the first to describe in detail how teams of “non-treating” psychiatrists and psychologists, called Behavioral Science Consultation Teams or “biscuits” in military language, were used at Guantanamo, the detention site established in January 2002 to hold “suspected enemy combatants” in the war on terror. Those teams are trained in SERE methods, the article said. One source told the New Yorker that the teams “took good knowledge and used it in a bad way.”

Many of the coercive techniques fit the international description of torture, according to a 2006 report by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.

The recently declassified Pentagon report, considered a military secret last year but made public in May by the inspector general of the Defense Department, confirms that the SERE techniques were “reverse engineered” in 2002 for use against suspected al-Qaida loyalists in Guantanamo, Iraq, Afghanistan and other CIA “black,” or secret, detention centers.

The techniques include hooding and starving detainees, sleep deprivation, isolation in darkness, mocking their religious beliefs and subjecting them to other forms of extreme stress, including sexual humiliation, the report says – evoking the leaked photographic images of detainee abuse from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq taken from October to December 2003.

The New Yorker identified Mitchell as a psychologist who worked for years for SERE and who was present inside an interrogation room where the CIA was holding a “high value” al-Qaida suspect at an undisclosed location.

Mitchell argued for rougher tactics to be used on the man, including electric shock treatments similar to the treatment of dogs in previous behavioral psychology experiments. The shocks caused a condition known as “learned helplessness” in the dogs, according to the New Yorker.

Mitchell neither denied nor confirmed to the New Yorker that he worked with the CIA, lending his expertise as a psychologist to interrogation of so-called military combatants.

Controversy among psychologists

Such work is sparking controversy among medical professionals.

Members of the American Psychological Association are urgently debating whether psychologists should be assisting in any way with detainee interrogations.

While the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association have already voted to oppose any participation of their members in similar interrogations, the psychologists’ association “has been silent” on whether its members should participate in the questioning of detainees, said Brad Olson, a community psychologist and assistant research professor at Northwestern University. In a May 2007 statement, the APA said having psychologists consult with interrogation teams helps keep the interrogations “safe and ethical.”

That’s not good enough, Olson told The Spokesman-Review in an interview this week.

“Principle A in our ethics code is that we do good and don’t do harm. Psychologists are acting in these settings. They are doing absolutely no good for the detainee,” Olson said.

Olson, president of the Divisions for Social Justice within the APA, was among 40 psychologists who wrote an “open letter” on June 7 to APA President Sharon Brehm, a professor at Indiana University, urging the group to boycott any work at the detention centers.

“We write you as psychologists concerned about the participation of our profession in abusive interrogations of national security detainees at Guantanamo, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and at the so-called CIA ‘black sites,’ ” the letter says.

It urges the APA to “encourage, support, and cooperate” with the Senate investigation of detainee treatment.

The open letter doesn’t fully reflect the APA’s position, said Stephen Behnke, director of the APA’s Ethics Directorate. He has argued for the presence of APA members at the interrogation sites so they can flag unethical or illegal conduct.

The association has repeatedly condemned torture and leading APA members have protested the harsh SERE techniques used at Guantanamo and other detention sites, Behnke said in an interview.

Those “unethical and ineffective” techniques include waterboarding, sexual shaming, mock executions, forced nudity, exploitation of phobias, hooding, the use of dogs to threaten or intimidate, induced hypothermia and cultural or religious humiliation, Behnke added.

The recently released Pentagon inspector general’s report “made it clear” that there were some people in the military and intelligence agencies who thought it was a good idea to reverse-engineer the SERE techniques to use against terrorist detainees, but APA members weren’t among them, Behnke said.

He emphasized repeatedly during the interview that Spokane psychologists Mitchell and Jessen are not APA members and have not been part of the group’s nationwide debate over the interrogation methods.

“APA has had no contact whatsoever with these individuals concerning interrogations or interrogation techniques,” Behnke said.

However, the Spokane company is claiming an APA affiliation. On the TechExpo Internet posting, the company describes its work in “high-risk programs” and says it is “additionally approved by the American Psychological Association to offer continuing professional education for psychologists.”

Informed Thursday by The Spokesman-Review of that claim, APA spokeswoman Rhea Farberman said: “Mitchell Jessen & Associates is not an APA-approved sponsor of continuing education for psychologists.” APA will follow up with the Web site and the company to make sure they no longer make that claim, Farberman said.