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Shawn Vestal: $80 million paid to Spokane firm for enhanced interrogation
Wed., Dec. 10, 2014
It’s long been known that a pair of former Fairchild Air Force Base psychologists helped develop and personally implement the CIA torture program following the 9/11 attacks.
A new Senate report details how much money they made doing it.
More than $80 million in taxpayer money went to Mitchell, Jessen & Associates, the Spokane company formed by James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen to carry forward the work of waterboarding, mock burials and other so-called “enhanced interrogation” techniques the United States adopted starting in 2002. The Senate report said the firm had a contract for up to $180 million, but the interrogation program was disbanded in 2009.
The new report – a blistering and controversial critique of the Bush-era torture program that paints a picture of a sloppy, poorly run program propped up by consistently false claims that torture produced useful information or prevented attacks – spends a lot of pages detailing the participation of Mitchell and Jessen.
The two are former Fairchild survival school psychologists who formed their Spokane company in 2005 to continue their interrogation work as paid contractors. Their central role in developing and promoting the torture techniques has been a matter of public record for years. The men took the survival techniques taught to soldiers and airmen to learn how to resist illegal torture and “reverse-engineered” them as techniques to produce intelligence. The Senate report is the latest of many evaluations that conclude the approach was, in addition to being illegal and inhumane, ineffective.
An experienced interrogator and former Fairchild colleague of the men, Col. Steven Kleinman, has said they were in over their heads. “I think they’ve caused more harm to American national security than they’ll ever understand,” Kleinman said in 2012.
The new report includes details about Mitchell and Jessen’s role that have not been previously reported, including their involvement in an interrogation that left a prisoner dead and in the “reckless” waterboarding of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Their consistent claims that their work had disrupted terror plots and provided crucial information was among the information CIA officials and others have used in claiming the torture was effective; the Senate report examines each of these instances closely and concludes that the program was “not an effective means of acquiring intelligence.”
The report never names Mitchell and Jessen, instead using the pseudonyms Grayson Swigert and Hammond Dunbar. But it is clear from the context – and compared against a past Senate report as well as reporting by several other journalists – that they are the psychologists in question.
The report reveals that deep concerns about Mitchell and Jessen’s involvement were debated from the start of their involvement, in 2002. The men, who had no firsthand interrogation experience, were considered by some on the front lines to be ill-equipped for the job. One email from a CIA staff psychologist said “no professional in the field would credit” their judgments. Another said their “arrogance and narcissism” led to unnecessary conflicts in the field. The director of interrogations for the CIA called their program a “train wreck” and complained that they were blending the roles of doctor and interrogator inappropriately.
A medical officer painted a stark picture of a grotesque conflict-of-interest inherent in their roles, saying “the same individuals applied an (enhanced interrogation technique) which only they were approved to employ, judged both its effectiveness and detainee resilience, and implicitly proposed continued use of the technique – at a daily compensation reported to be $1,800/day.”
Attempts to reach Mitchell and Jessen were unsuccessful. The former number of Mitchell, Jessen & Associates now rings to another company. Jessen was appointed as a bishop in his Spokane ward of the Mormon church but resigned soon after the news of the appointment was reported. Mitchell has apparently moved to Florida. In an interview with the Guardian of London earlier this year, he said, “I’m just a guy who got asked to do something for his country by people at the highest level of government, and I did the best that I could.”
The pair issued a joint statement defending their work several years ago, insisting their work was legal and ethical, and saying, “We resolutely oppose torture.”
The executive summary of the Senate report is a long, detailed examination of the torture program, and it is comprehensively sourced and footnoted. Among the report’s comments about Mitchell and Jessen:
• When the CIA was developing its interrogation program in early 2002 and considering harsh interrogation techniques, the only research used was an analysis of an al-Qaida manual by Mitchell and Jessen. “Neither psychologist had experience as an interrogator, nor did either have specialized knowledge of (al-Qaida), a background in terrorism, or any relevant regional cultural or linguistic expertise.”
• The men pushed for the adoption of the techniques. A footnote in the report says, “the CIA did not seek out (Mitchell) and (Jessen) after a decision was made to use coercive interrogation techniques; rather, (Mitchell) and (Jessen) played a role in convincing the CIA to adopt such a policy.” A past Senate report describes the men as “pitching” their program to government officials.
• Neither man had any direct experience with the waterboard, as it was not used in Air Force survival training. Nevertheless, they described it as an “absolutely convincing technique” that was needed to overwhelm a suspect’s ability to resist.
• In 2002, the interrogation program was being developed in a rush, built around the capture of Abu Zubaydah, an al-Qaida member who was caught and moved to a secret prison in Thailand. FBI interrogators worked with Zubaydah initially, and would later claim that their rapport-building techniques produced the most useful information. The CIA took over from the FBI and began using the “enhanced techniques” proposed and personally employed by Mitchell and Jessen, months before any training or guidelines – let alone formal approval – were in place. Among the tactics used, Zubaydah was isolated for 47 days.
• CIA headquarters approved waterboarding on Aug. 3, 2002, under the conditions that only Mitchell and Jessen “were to have contact with” Zubaydah, and CIA officials would simply observe. Over the next 19 days, Zubaydah was subjected to enhanced interrogation on a “near 24-per-hour-per-day basis.” He was slammed against walls, struck, hooded, placed in a coffin-like “confinement box” – and waterboarded for hours on end. By the sixth day, CIA officials decided that the techniques were not producing the information about future attacks and were not likely to. The interrogations continued. Observing these sessions run by Mitchell and Jessen had a “profound” effect on CIA personnel, “some to the point of tears and choking up,” the report quotes one CIA employee saying. Zubaydah was eventually waterboarded 83 times. The report concludes the interrogations were “brutal and far worse than the CIA represented” to officials and the public. At one point, the report says, Zubaydah became “completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth.”
• At the end of the interrogation, the CIA concluded Zubaydah did not have information about terrorism threats after all. The committee report concludes that virtually all useful intelligence came from the FBI interrogations, without the use of torture. Mitchell and Jessen concluded in a memo that their techniques were useful, not because Zubaydah provided information on terror threats, but because he did not: “We additionally sought to bring subject to the point that we confidently assess that he does not … possess undisclosed threat information.”
• Jessen assisted in the November 2002 interrogation of Gul Rahman, a suspected Islamic extremist. The interrogation included a wide range of harsh techniques. Jessen left the detention site and offered suggestions to the CIA officer about how to use further “enhanced measures.” Rahman was shackled in a way that required him to sit on a concrete floor wearing only a sweatshirt; he was discovered dead the next day of likely hypothermia, a CIA autopsy suggested.
• The men also assisted in the 183 waterboardings of Mohammed in 2003, perhaps the most well-known of all the torture cases. Among the assertions in the report is that the two men threatened the lives of Mohammed’s children on the first day of their interrogations. At one point, as the intensity of the waterboarding sessions increased, they used their hands to maintain a 1-inch pool of water around his mouth. At another stage, they would wait for him to begin speaking, then pour water into his mouth.
• The report concludes that the waterboarding provided no useful intelligence – contrary to oft-reported claims by the CIA and administration officials.
• In January 2003, Jessen arrived at a detention site where another detainee had been interrogated unsuccessfully. He developed an interrogation plan including waterboarding and said this would require additional support from Mitchell. The CIA’s chief of interrogations told several colleagues that he had “serious reservations” about the program and its effect on the detainee, and would be retiring. He wrote, “this is a train wreak (sic) waiting to happen and I intend to get the hell off the train before it happens.” His superiors chose to go forward.
• The CIA outsourced almost all of its “enhanced” interrogations by 2005, and most of those contracts went to Mitchell and Jessen. In June 2007, the men briefed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on the interrogation program in an attempt to win her support.
The report describes the scope of Mitchell, Jessen & Associates’ enterprise. The number of employees at the firm was blacked out in the report, but it says the firm hired former CIA workers. The firm provided interrogators and security personnel at black sites – secret prisons; it served as intermediary between the governments of other countries and the CIA; it worked on a project to identify the “terrorist mind set.” The firm’s contract also called for “writing the history of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program.”
• The CIA also authorized payments for Mitchell, Jessen & Associates – identified as “Company Y” in the report – for “countersurveillance” of its officers when the program was being written about in the press, and for a $5 million indemnification contract, which included expenses associated with any criminal prosecution. The CIA spent $1.1 million on legal expenses for the men between 2007 and 2012. “Under the CIA’s indemnification contract,” the report says, “the CIA is obligated to pay Company Y’s legal expenses through 2021.”