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CIA documents reveal debate about role of Spokane psychologists

Jan. 25, 2017 Updated Wed., Jan. 25, 2017 at 12:35 p.m.

Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

A CIA official expressed concerns about the “arrogance and narcissism” of two Spokane psychologists who developed and helped implement the U.S. post-9-11 torture program, and said the men “have both shown a blatant disregard for the ethics shared by almost all of their colleagues,” according to internal agency documents.

The documents show that at least some people within the agency had the same concerns that outside critics would later raise about the roles of Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell, the two former survival school psychologists at Fairchild Air Force Base who earned millions in government payments for devising – and applying – the Bush administration’s “enhanced interrogation” program for high-value detainees in the war on terror. The documents were obtained and posted online by the ACLU, which is suing Jessen and Mitchell on behalf of three former detainees, including one who died.

The memos depict concerns that Mitchell and Jessen – referred to in one instance as “the Jim and Bruce show” – were overconfident and inexperienced. They also reflect ethical concerns about the men serving as interrogators and psychologists simultaneously, as well as acting as researchers evaluating their own work. One official raised the possibility that the two men were essentially boasting about waterboarding detainees, outside of the approved disclosure practices.

“I hope these folks are not promoting their importance among their colleagues by inappropriate disclosures,” the official wrote.

The case is proceeding in federal court in Spokane, and the parties are currently debating a variety of technical and legal issues involving national security issues and other matters unique to the case. Questions about the agency’s relationship with the two contractors have become a key point; the men’s attorneys argue they were acting as “agents” of the government, which provides legal protections for their actions, but the ACLU says as independent, for-profit contractors they were not government agents.

The documents also include memos supportive of the contractors and a CIA point-by-point “justification” of the men’s involvement, saying they played a “key component in the Agency’s Global War on Terrorism.” It also maintains that the interrogation program was one of many sources of information that helped the agency capture terrorists and disrupt terror plots. Several other independent assessments, including an exhaustive Senate Intelligence Committee report, concluded that the torture program did not produce effective intelligence and criticized the CIA for misleading Congress about the program.

Mitchell and Jessen’s attorneys have asked for the suit against them to be dismissed, and they argue in court documents and interviews that the ACLU is cherry-picking documents to make their clients look bad. They say the two men were operating with government authority and produced results that helped the country fight terrorism.

The documents reflect internal deliberations among medical and psychological personnel about the involvement of Mitchell and Jessen in evaluating detainees in 2003, after they had been involved in interrogations at CIA black sites.

An email communication from June 2003 among CIA personnel involved deliberations about the two men’s continuing role in the interrogation program. The communication involved the “end game” of handling so-called “high-value targets” who had been captured, “all of whom are young and will be confined for the rest of their natural lives … to ensure that they can be productive intelligence ‘assets’ of the CIA for the long-term.”

One official, whose identity is blacked out, expresses several reservations about the two contractors.

“My greatest concern in this area is the likelihood of Jim and Bruce ignoring or interfering with our on-site psychologists when they are deployed,” the memo said. “Although these guys believe that their way is the only way, there should be an effort to define roles and responsibilities before their arrogance and narcissism evolve into unproductive conflict in the field.”

The official also wrote of the conflicts of interest, “Jim and (Bruce) have both shown blatant disregard for the ethics shared by almost all of their conflicts,” and added, “Wholesale adoption of the Jim and Bruce show just isn’t appropriate.”

Another official urged the agency to select someone else to evaluate the detainees, referring to an unnamed candidate who “certainly has debriefed more released hostages than the two (contractors) combined, and he doesn’t have the baggage of having applied enhanced measures. Even though the (contractors) are very bright folks … no professional in the field would credit their later judgments as psychologists assessing the subjects of their enhanced measures.”

The official added, “if some untoward outcome is later to be explained, their sole use in this role will be indefensible.”

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