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Depositions provide glimpse into minds of psychologists who advised CIA’s advanced interrogation program

The office of Mitchell Jessen and Associates is seen June 27, 2007, in downtown Spokane. (Brian Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

When Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell urged their bosses in the CIA to halt the waterboarding of a terrorism suspect in 2002, they were pressured to keep going, according depositions in a federal lawsuit.

“They kept telling me every day a nuclear bomb was going to be exploded in the United States, and that because I told them to stop I had lost my nerve, and it was going to be my fault if I didn’t continue,” said Jessen, one of two former Fairchild Air Force Base psychologists who helped develop and implement the post-9/11 torture program from their offices in downtown Spokane.

“I think the word that was actually used is that ‘You guys are pussies,’ ” Mitchell said.

“ ‘There’s going to be another attack in America and the blood of dead civilians is going to be on your hands,’ ” he said he was told. “ ‘If you won’t follow through with this, then we’re going to send somebody out there who will.’ ”

The two men are being sued in federal court by the ACLU on behalf of former detainees. The New York Times obtained the depositions and first reported them Wednesday, but the ACLU has made them public on their website for the case.

At the request of CIA officials in 2002, the men contributed a list of possible techniques for a program of “enhanced interrogation,” including waterboarding, stress positions, slaps, hard slams against walls, sleep deprivation and others. The techniques, which many consider torture, were given legal clearance by the administration but later abandoned and criticized both inside and outside the U.S.

The techniques were based on strategies they had used in training American service members to resist torture at the Fairchild Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape –or SERE – school.

They later formed a private company, Mitchell Jessen and Associates, which was paid $81 million by the CIA; they also personally conducted interrogations at CIA sites, including the waterboarding of key terrorism suspects.

The depositions represent the first comments by Jessen that have been made public; he was briefly named the bishop of a local Mormon ward but stepped down shortly thereafter in 2012. He has repeatedly declined requests from journalists seeking interviews. Mitchell has made more public appearances, and done interviews with Fox and Vice News.

In his deposition, Jessen said the decision to participate caused him “great, soulful torment.”

“I think any – any normal, conscionable man would have to consider carefully doing something like this,” he said. “When I was called and asked to do this, I paused, I thought, I wondered. I took every precaution that I could. I asked every question that I could. I waited until the weight of the entire nation’s judicial system weighed in on it and told us it was legal.”

Both men insist throughout their depositions that they were not the people making decisions about the torture program.

A Senate intelligence committee report in 2014 concluded the program amounted to torture, and it has since been abandoned and formally prohibited. The full report is still classified and may remain so. Defenders of the practice say it produced intelligence that helped prevent terrorist acts, though critics disagree.

What follows are some of the statements made by the two men, gleaned from hundreds of pages of depositions.

Early involvement

In the summer of 2002, as the government was scrambling to respond to the 9/11 attacks, Mitchell, and later Jessen, became involved with CIA efforts to develop interrogation techniques on “high-value detainees.”

They were called to CIA headquarters and asked to offer suggestions for harsher techniques that might persuade a prisoner named Abu Zubaydah to reveal critical information about impending attacks. Both men describe an atmosphere of urgency and fear, with concerns about another attack and a sense that increased pressure was needed to get information to prevent it.

“They had been considering alternative approaches, some of which I was told were, quote, beyond the pale,” Jessen said. “I don’t know the specifics, but I guess it was anyone could throw anything out.”

They provided a list of techniques that were used at the SERE school. Both men insisted they did not “design” a program so much as share well-known information. Mitchell in particular objected to the claim, from the CIA and others, that they were “architects” of the program.

“We provided them with a list. We didn’t develop a bunch of new EITs,” he said, using the acronym for enhanced interrogation techniques.

The SERE techniques, Jessen said, “were to represent what we thought our enemy might do if they weren’t adhering to the Geneva Conventions.”

Mitchell said when he realized that the CIA wanted him to do interrogations personally, he was surprised. At one point, he said, he met with CIA Director George Tenet and demonstrated some of the techniques for him.

A list of torture techniques, based on information the men provided and including waterboarding, was approved for use by the Department of Justice on Zubaydah in August. Mitchell and Jessen had already been dispatched to the prison.

Service for $1,800 a day

Mitchell and Jessen were reportedly each paid $1,800 per day. Mitchell said that, while much has been made of that rate, it fell below the payments others who contracted with the government as psychologists received.

“I didn’t view the campaign against al-Qaeda as a business opportunity, I viewed it as a patriotic duty,” he said.

Jessen said at first he was unfamiliar with the entire contracting process.

“They said, ‘How much are you going to charge?’ And I said, ‘I have no idea,’ ” he said. “This guy said, ‘This is the standard rate for somebody like you.’ I said, ‘OK.’ They said, ‘Hurry, hurry, we finished the contract.’ I signed it.”

Abu Zubaydah

Zubaydah underwent sleep deprivation, extreme confinement, forced nudity and physical assaults. All told, he was waterboarded 83 times over more than two weeks; Mitchell and Jessen did a lot of the “pouring.”

They eventually concluded that the techniques weren’t working and asked their superiors to put a stop to it. That was when they were pressured to continue – and did, for a while.

“In the end, we were able to convince them that it wasn’t going to be useful and they eventually stopped,” Jessen said. “Not because we thought we were doing or instilling permanent harm, but because we thought it was no longer useful. It wasn’t done gratuitously.”

He said at another point, “I had been in the military my whole life and … I was committed to and used to doing what I was ordered to do.”

Zubaydah remains imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay. Many critics – including an FBI interrogator who was directly involved – have said the tactics produced no worthwhile intelligence that Zubaydah hadn’t already revealed through more traditional questioning. Defenders of the program dispute that.

Other interrogations

Mitchell and Jessen were also involved in several other high-profile interrogations, including those of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, believed to be the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, believed to have orchestrated the attack on the USS Cole.

Jessen said he always followed the Department of Justice guidelines and didn’t go beyond what was approved. But he came to learn that there was a “disparate” series of different interrogations going on, in other prisons under looser standards.

“Later, to put it quickly and bluntly, a lot of this all fell apart and there was a lot of intrigue and problems, and people were doing things they shouldn’t do, they were breaking the law and stepping outside the Department of Justice guidelines, not me and not Jim, but there were people doing that,” Jessen said. “This eventually in the (Senate report) all was subscribed to me and Jim. But it wasn’t us.”

Later, he added, “Lord knows what else was going on. There was a lot.”

Gul Rahman

Jessen spoke in detail about the case of Gul Rahman, who died in a secret prison in Afghanistan in 2002 after being chained in a room, mostly nude, in near-freezing conditions. Before his death, Jessen had visited the prison and raised concerns about harsh interrogation methods.

“I never used any techniques that weren’t authorized initially by the Justice Department, initially for Abu Zubaydah, then for Nashiri, then for KSM” – Khalid Sheikh Mohammed – “then for a few other people,” Jessen said. “And so when I arrived at this other location and they were doing other things, it surprised me, and I asked, ‘Are these authorized?’ The response I got was, ‘I don’t think so.’ ”

Jessen said Rahman was often being guarded, unsupervised, by “indigenous personnel who were of a faction incredibly hostile to his faction.” Interrogators were using an unapproved technique called “hard takedowns” and giving him cold showers, and leaving him chained to the wall in cold rooms. Jessen called the conditions “deplorable.”

After he left the prison, he took his concerns about Rahman’s interrogation up the chain of command.

“At that time, as I later learned, Rahman was already deceased,” he said.

He said if the interrogators “had been in my program, and if they would have done what I recommended be done, he’d still be alive.”

‘I don’t want them messing with my family’

“I’ll tell you a story,” he said. “Two Christmases ago, I get a call from the CIA, my grandchildren and my daughter and son-in-law are living with us. You have 15 minutes to get out of your house because ISIS has found someone to come and kill you and your family.

“Now, those – that isn’t the only threat I’ve received over the years, I’ve received lots of them. And I’m not afraid, and I did my duty and I stood up and I went to war, and I’ll stand up to any of them again, but I don’t want them messing with my family.

“And when you stick your face in the public eye, you get people like the SSCI and (Sen. Dianne) Feinstein and the ACLU and other people who accuse you of things you didn’t do, who out your name, who give them your address, who print articles that are full of crap about you, and it makes it difficult.”

Interrogation videos destroyed

The interrogation of Zubaydah was videotaped, but the tapes were destroyed. Mitchell said he didn’t do that himself, but recommended it.

“I thought they were ugly and they would, you know, potentially endanger our lives by putting our pictures out so that the bad guys could see us,” he said.

Asked why they should have been destroyed if the actions they showed were legal, he said: “Why don’t we have tapes of abortions? We don’t have tapes of abortion because they’re not pleasant to look at even though they’re legal. And individual doctors wouldn’t probably want videotapes of them aborting on YouTube even though it’s legal.”