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Fairchild’s torture ties extend their reach

Post-9/11 clashes questioned modes of interrogation

Ten years ago this month, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was considering the approval of aggressive interrogation techniques for “high-value detainees” being held at Guantanamo Bay.

The techniques had roots in the survival school training conducted at Fairchild Air Force Base and elsewhere, where service members are taught to resist the worst the enemy might do. The methods became the foundation for an interrogation program that proceeded, sometimes officially, sometimes not, through various incarnations of the “war on terror”: from secret CIA prisons to Guantanamo Bay to Abu Ghraib.

Some of those Fairchild roots are well-known, particularly the roles of two former Air Force psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen. Mitchell and Jessen helped create the CIA’s interrogation program in the months after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001; they oversaw an extended case of waterboarding at a secret prison in Thailand, one of the most detailed cases in the debate over torture and interrogation.

But others with connections to Fairchild played roles as well. A prominent critic of the interrogation program was a top intelligence officer at Fairchild who intervened to stop brutal questioning of prisoners in Iraq. That man, Col. Steven Kleinman, had years of experience as an interrogator in Panama and Iraq, but his concerns that the enhanced interrogation program was both illegal and ineffective were ignored.

Of Mitchell and Jessen, Kleinman says, “I think they’ve caused more harm to American national security than they’ll ever understand.”

Another Fairchild connection was the chief psychologist for the survival school, Jerald Ogrisseg, who warned early on that he considered waterboarding illegal. He wrote a memo on the effects of the practice that some would later suggest was taken out of context to help justify the use of the technique.

A decade after the nation’s response to the attacks of 9/11, a lot remains unknown about the interrogation program. But government investigations, news reporting, books and human-rights activists have revealed increasingly more details about the program and how its tendrils reached back to Spokane and Fairchild.

Building confidence to survive

The history of military interrogations and resistance has a long presence in Spokane. James Shively, the one-time U.S. attorney for Eastern Washington, was a highly decorated pilot who was shot down during the Vietnam War and spent six years as a prisoner of war in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton,” where he was subjected to torture.

Shively’s survival and return became for a time part of the curriculum at the survival school, which provides SERE training – survival, evasion, resistance and escape. Bob Dunn, a local attorney and an instructor at the school in the 1970s, said a film about Shively’s experiences was required viewing for every trainee for many years.

The school – which is run by a Defense Department agency known as the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency – teaches pilots and others to resist harsh interrogations, escape and survive in the wild. A portion of the training subjects them to simulations of illegal interrogation techniques, based in part on Chinese Communist torture used to elicit false confessions. The techniques include sleep and sensory deprivation, being placed in stress positions and tightly confined spaces, being stripped and placed in cold environments for a long time and forceful, strategic slapping.

Ted Danek, a retired lieutenant colonel and squadron commander at the SERE school, as well as a former Spokane city manager, ran the “dunker” at the school, which teaches pilots to escape from a plane, upside down, underwater. He calls undergoing the SERE training himself one of the most difficult experiences of his life – “Take away death and loss, and it’s in the top three or four hardest things I’ve ever done,” he said.

But he said it’s important for teaching U.S. service members to survive capture and return, alive and with honor. “Everything out there is about building the confidence to survive and face another day,” he said.

In the months after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, government officials were scrambling to develop a plan for interrogating detainees. Early on, attention focused on the resistance techniques taught at SERE schools.

In December 2001, James Mitchell, a psychologist who retired from SERE and become a private contractor, was approached by the CIA to evaluate some al-Qaida training manuals and develop an interrogation program, according to the 2008 Senate Armed Services Committee report on detainee interrogation. Mitchell asked Bruce Jessen, a former SERE colleague who was also retired, to help. The two formed Mitchell, Jessen & Associates, a Spokane company that employed many former SERE officials. At one point, it was being paid as much as $2,000 a day for its work, according to several published reports.

Many of the problems that critics would later pinpoint were built in from the very beginning. The idea of “reverse-engineering” SERE training was problematic, many interrogation experts say, in that the program was meant to teach how to resist harsh questioning, not to produce answers in actual interrogations. SERE training was conducted on volunteers in a secure environment by specialists who could stop the process at any point. And, crucially, the people who taught resistance were not interrogators – neither Mitchell nor Jessen had ever conducted an interrogation or researched the subject.

“The problem with any coercive interrogation technique is the quality of the information you get,” Dunn said. “I could torture you right now and you’d be confessing to consorting with llamas. … You’re going to tell me anything I want to know to make the punishment stop.”

Pitching the SERE model

On Feb. 5, 2002, President George W. Bush signed a declaration that the Third Geneva Convention did not apply to the conflict with al-Qaida or the Taliban, and that those prisoners were not entitled to prisoner-of-war status or legal guarantees of humane treatment under the convention. The memo said the military would continue to treat detainees humanely, and “to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity, in a manner consistent with the principles of the Geneva Conventions.”

Five days later, Jessen sent an email to the commander of JPRA, with his and Mitchell’s report outlining a proposal for detainee “exploitation.” It went up the chain of command, along with proposals to create a “short course” for teaching interrogation techniques derived from SERE.

Over the next few months, Jessen and Mitchell participated in planning and training discussions. During one session, Jessen told congressional investigators, the idea was to “pitch” JPRA as a resource, governmentwide, for interrogation training.

What Kleinman calls the “critical disconnect” of the enterprise – the mistaking of role-playing resistance training as a basis for actual interrogations – was spreading. It was becoming conventional wisdom among decision-makers and at Fairchild that SERE trainers were interrogation experts, he said.

Meanwhile, on March 28, in Pakistan, American forces shot and captured Abu Zubaydah, believed to be a high-ranking member of al-Qaida. The pressure to prevent another attack was great. The legal arguments about the limits of interrogation – as well as Mitchell and Jessen’s program for breaking down prisoners – was about to leave the realm of the theoretical.

‘Wouldn’t that be illegal?’

In July 2002, Lt. Col. Dan Baumgartner of the JPRA placed a call to Jerald Ogrisseg, the chief psychologist for the SERE program at Fairchild.

Baumgartner told Ogrisseg that he was being asked “from above” about the psychological effects of resistance training, including waterboarding. Ogrisseg told him he’d seen the waterboard used at the Navy SERE school and would never recommend it for training because it “produced capitulation and compliance with instructor demands 100 percent of the time,” and that it produced something called “learned helplessness” in trainees, which was something SERE instructors want to avoid.

Ogrisseg said he thought the waterboard didn’t harm students in the long term, because it was voluntary, carried out in a controlled environment and for other reasons. Baumgartner asked what he thought of using the waterboard against the enemy.

“Wouldn’t that be illegal?” Ogrisseg replied.

Baumgartner then told him that “some people were asking from above about the utility of using the technique.”

“I replied that I wouldn’t go down that path because, aside from being illegal, it was a completely different arena that we in the Survival School didn’t know anything about,” Ogrisseg told the Senate committee in 2008.

Baumgartner asked him to write a memo based on their conversation, and Ogrisseg did. Given all the caveats involved in a training scenario, he wrote, he didn’t think waterboarding during training caused long-term physical or psychological damage.

Ogrisseg’s memo went up the chain. While it’s not certain how much of a role it played in later decisions, officials testified that SERE techniques were discussed among several top officials in the Bush administration.

Department of Justice attorney John Yoo eventually wrote the critical legal memo in the Bush administration’s interrogation program, making a legal case that significantly narrowed the types of brutal interrogation techniques that would be considered torture under international law to only the most extreme methods. The memo also suggested that the international law against torture, signed by the U.S., might unconstitutionally limit presidential authority.

Ogrisseg took pains before the Senate committee to clarify that his memo was never intended to reflect on the usefulness of waterboarding in real interrogations.

“I certainly never would have assumed, based on my memo, which clearly pertains to medically screened and medically monitored trainees, that there’d be inferences about this that would be used to try to promote these types of procedures in real world detainee handling,” he testified.

Kleinman said Ogrisseg’s memo was misused by those eager to justify their foregone conclusions.

“They asked him a question posed in one context, meaning is it safe to use (waterboarding) in a resistance-to-interrogation training environment, and he provided a qualified yes,” Kleinman said. “His words were just taken out of context – and purposefully so.”

Meanwhile, just as the legal battle was raging in Washington, D.C., an intense debate was taking place halfway around the world in the Thai prison – where Mitchell and the CIA were in conflict with FBI interrogators.

Warring interrogations

Following the capture of Abu Zubaydah, experienced FBI interrogators were using the rapport-building techniques that research and experience taught them would work. It was the opposite approach in every way to the one being drafted and pursued by Mitchell, Jessen and their superiors.

And it was starting to work – according to several accounts, the FBI interrogators learned about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, from Zubaydah in those initial encounters.

When Mitchell and the CIA arrived, they took over and immediately began using harsher techniques that came to be described as “enhanced interrogation.” Mitchell is portrayed in several accounts as brazenly confident, overriding objections from the more experienced FBI interrogators.

Interrogators stripped Zubaydah naked and lowered the temperature in his room. They blasted music for 24 to 48 hours at a time. Mitchell spoke to Zubaydah himself, according to several accounts, while wearing a mask. The prisoner clammed up.

The FBI interrogators took over again and began trying to regain his trust. Eventually, he gave them information that led them to Jose Padilla – the “dirty bomber.” This persuaded Mitchell and CIA officials that it was time to get tough again, according to several accounts based on FBI sources. The back and forth continued; at one point, an FBI interrogator told a superior he was going to arrest the CIA team.

In late July, Jessen arrived in Thailand to join Mitchell. On Aug. 1, Yoo’s memo authorizing harsher methods was signed. Over the next two weeks, according to several published accounts, Zubaydah was stuffed into small boxes, denied solid food and sleep, chained to a chair, assaulted – and, finally, waterboarded 83 times. An interrogator threatened to kill his mother. The sessions were videotaped, and the videotapes were destroyed by the CIA in 2005.

Several accounts say Mitchell participated directly in the waterboarding. Jessen’s role is not specified to that degree. The waterboarding ended when the psychologists decided Zubaydah had no more left to tell.

In the end, Zubaydah did reveal information about al-Qaida. Most of it he’d already given up to the FBI, and a CIA internal affairs report would suggest he might have given up more and faster had the harsh tactics never been used. Some government officials continued to insist, for years afterward, that he was a crucial al-Qaida officer and that the harsh interrogation techniques had produced valuable information; many people, including the key FBI official involved in his interrogation, flatly dispute this. That FBI official, Ali Soufan – along with many others, including President Barack Obama – have characterized the interrogation as torture.

“There was no actionable intelligence gained from using enhanced interrogation techniques on Abu Zubaydah that wasn’t, or couldn’t have been, gained from regular tactics,” Soufan wrote in a New York Times op-ed piece in 2009. “In addition, I saw that using these alternative methods on other terrorists backfired on more than a few occasions – all of which are still classified.” 

Zubaydah’s exact role remains unclear. Bush administration officials insisted repeatedly that he was the third-ranking member of the organization; he himself has claimed to be nothing more than a travel arranger. In either case, he clearly had information about the group. Oddly, in 2009, after years in which Zubaydah was publicly and frequently characterized as the most dangerous of terrorists, the government began arguing in court records that he was not a member of al-Qaida at all. He is still being held at Guantanamo Bay and has never been charged with a crime.

“I saw that, and I stopped it”

Meanwhile, heading into the fall of 2002, Rumsfeld was studying how to establish an interrogation program for Guantanamo. Kleinman, who was still a reserve officer but who was spending lots of time at Fairchild during these months, began hearing, in a “circuitous” way from colleagues in the administration, that SERE techniques were being considered for use in interrogation.

“I thought it was preposterous on its face,” Kleinman said. “This is a classic example of people involved at the senior level who really don’t understand, at all, what interrogation is about.”

He had no idea that his former colleagues Mitchell and Jessen were involved.

“I’d worked with those guys previously, and we actually talked about interrogation in the real world and we disagreed – we didn’t talk about it at length, but we disagreed very deeply about what they thought worked and what I thought worked,” he said.

In 2003, Kleinman was recalled from reserve status to active duty. He was named the director of intelligence for JPRA, stationed at Fairchild. In September 2003, he was dispatched to Iraq with a government contractor and a civilian employee from Fairchild. He thought he was going to teach soldiers how to resist torture. When he got there and discovered that he was being asked to teach SERE methods for use in real interrogations, he balked. In his eyes, SERE was intended to teach America’s military how to resist the worst the “bad guys” could do to us – not to become the bad guys themselves.

In Iraq, he saw interrogations where methods he considered illegal were used. In one case, he intervened and stopped an interrogation where a man was being slapped repeatedly for 30 minutes. He also interrupted another interrogation.

“The same sort of physical methods used in SERE training that have a purpose in SERE have no purpose and no place in intelligence interrogations conducted by the U.S. government,” he said. “I saw that, and I stopped it. My colleagues disagreed with me vehemently, as I vehemently disagreed with them.”

He was later ordered by the commander of JPRA to teach untrained young soldiers the techniques that were used by role-playing “interrogators” in resistance training at SERE schools.

Kleinman refused. He believed it was a violation of national and international laws, as well as the Geneva Conventions.

He returned to Fairchild and Spokane as persona non grata, he says. He was taken off projects that he’d been specifically brought in to oversee, he says. Eventually, the inspector general’s office at the Department of Defense began hearing that JPRA had become a de facto adviser on interrogations, and began an investigation. They soon came calling at Kleinman’s door.

Meanwhile, the SERE tactics continued being taught to interrogators. A two-day course covering the “full range of exploitation” was developed by the JPRA. The man who replaced Jessen at Fairchild, Gary Percival, participated in training sessions that summer and fall, in which he and others role-played to illustrate the techniques, according to the Senate report.

But the interrogation program was unraveling. Guantanamo Bay became a chaotic mess – one senior JPRA official wrote a memo expressing concern that they were teaching the techniques to people without the fundamental knowledge or ability to apply them correctly. The handling of detainees, he wrote, “is a screwed-up mess and everyone is scrambling to unscrew the mess.”

Percival said the participants in one training session didn’t understand what was being taught. The session, he told congressional investigators, was a “fiasco.”

Less than a month after that session, Rumsfeld approved the techniques for Guantanamo. Within months, he rescinded them.

‘We resolutely oppose torture’

A vast amount of what occurred with regard to SERE, the CIA, interrogations, Mitchell and Jessen, and others remains unknown. Much of it is classified. Mitchell and Jessen have refused repeatedly to discuss the matter; several years ago, they issued a statement.

“We are proud of the work we have done for our country,” the statement read. “The advice we have provided, and the actions we have taken have been legal and ethical. We resolutely oppose torture.”

The use of the SERE techniques was abandoned; JPRA’s charter was clarified in 2004 to establish that its mission did not include training interrogators. The CIA ended its contract with Mitchell and Jessen, and their office in downtown Spokane closed.

Following the Defense Department’s investigation, the Senate Armed Services Committee opened its own investigation, and other investigations and revelations followed. Some Bush administration officials, such as Vice President Dick Cheney, have insisted that the aggressive techniques produced important, life-saving information.

The Senate committee report concluded: “The fact is that senior officials in the United States government solicited information on how to use aggressive techniques, redefined the law to create the appearance of their legality, and authorized their use against detainees. Those efforts damaged our ability to collect accurate intelligence that could save lives, strengthened the hand of our enemies, and compromised our moral authority.”

Several books have been written about the Bush administration’s response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Many do not paint Mitchell and Jessen in a flattering light. Kurt Eichenwald’s recent book, “500 Days,” calls Mitchell a “fool.” A top FBI official has referred to their program as “voodoo science.” They are frequently described by human-rights activists and others as the “architects” of a torture regime.

Mitchell has apparently left Spokane; Jessen remains here and was recently made the bishop of his ward in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Kleinman now lives in California, where he remains a colonel in the Air Force reserves.

Kleinman says he believes Mitchell and Jessen provided invaluable contributions to the resistance training model at SERE – and then went off into a realm they didn’t understand, supported by upper-level administrators who’d watched too many TV shows and knew too little about real-world interrogation.

“I think what Drs. Mitchell and Jessen have allegedly done is heinous, but I will not point the finger at them as the ones who caused this whole program to happen,” he said. “They provided a model that people wanted. There was already a decision made, I believe.”

Kleinman says that the people who made the decisions about interrogation were acting out of a patriotic desire to protect the country at a time of great fear and uncertainty.

“The sad thing is, they just did the opposite,” he said. “They’ve put America and Americans at risk for generations to come because of their buffoonery, because of their lack of sophistication about the law, and certainly about their lack of sophistication about the complex adaptive system that is interrogation.”

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