American Architects Of Harsh Tactics In 9/11's Wake
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29 August 2009
By Scott Shane
Jim Mitchell and
Bruce Jessen were military retirees and psychologists,
on the lookout for business opportunities. They found
an excellent customer in the Central Intelligence
Agency, where in 2002 they became the architects of
the most important interrogation program in the
history of American counterterrorism.
They had never carried out a real interrogation, only
mock sessions in the military training they had
overseen. They had no relevant scholarship; their
Ph.D. dissertations were on high blood pressure and
family therapy. They had no language skills and no
expertise on Al Qaeda.
But they had psychology credentials and an intimate
knowledge of a brutal treatment regimen used decades
ago by Chinese Communists. For an administration eager
to get tough on those who had killed 3,000 Americans,
that was enough.
So "Doc Mitchell" and "Doc Jessen," as they had been
known in the Air Force, helped lead the United States
into a wrenching conflict over torture, terror and
values that seven years later has not run its course.
Dr. Mitchell, with a sonorous Southern accent and the
sometimes overbearing confidence of a self-made man,
was a former Air Force explosives expert and a natural
salesman. Dr. Jessen, raised on an Idaho potato farm,
joined his Air Force colleague to build a thriving
business that made millions of dollars selling
interrogation and training services to the C.I.A.
Seven months after President Obama ordered the C.I.A.
interrogation program closed, its fallout still
commands attention. In the next few weeks, Attorney
General Eric H. Holder Jr. is expected to decide
whether to begin a criminal torture investigation, in
which the psychologists' role is likely to come under
scrutiny. The Justice Department ethics office is
expected to complete a report on the lawyers who
pronounced the methods legal. And the C.I.A. will soon
release a highly critical 2004 report on the program
by the agency's inspector general.
Col. Steven M. Kleinman, an Air Force interrogator and
intelligence officer who knows Dr. Mitchell and Dr.
Jessen, said he thought loyalty to their country in
the panicky wake of the Sept. 11 attacks prompted
their excursion into interrogation. He said the result
was a tragedy for the country, and for them.
"I feel their primary motivation was they thought they
had skills and insights that would make the nation
safer," Colonel Kleinman said. "But good persons in
extreme circumstances can do horrific things."
For the C.I.A., as well as for the gray-goateed Dr.
Mitchell, 58, and the trim, dark-haired Dr. Jessen,
60, the change in administrations has been
neck-snapping. For years, President George W. Bush
declared the interrogation program lawful and praised
it for stopping attacks. Mr. Obama, by contrast,
asserted that its brutality rallied recruits for Al
Qaeda; called one of the methods, waterboarding,
torture; and, in his first visit to the C.I.A.,
suggested that the interrogation program was among the
The psychologists' subsequent fall from official grace
has been as swift as their rise in 2002. Today the
offices of Mitchell Jessen and Associates, the
lucrative business they operated from a handsome
century-old building in downtown Spokane, Wash., sit
empty, its C.I.A. contracts abruptly terminated last
With a possible criminal inquiry looming, Dr. Mitchell
and Dr. Jessen have retained a well-known defense
lawyer, Henry F. Schuelke III. Mr. Schuelke said they
would not comment for this article, which is based on
dozens of interviews with the doctors' colleagues and
present and former government officials.
In a brief e-mail exchange in June, Dr. Mitchell said
his nondisclosure agreement with the C.I.A. prevented
him from commenting. He suggested that his work had
"Ask around," Dr. Mitchell wrote, "and I'm sure you
will find all manner of `experts' who will be willing
to make up what you'd like to hear on the spot and
unrestrained by reality."
A Career Shift
At the time of the Sept. 11 attacks, Dr. Mitchell had
just retired from his last military job, as
psychologist to an elite special operations unit in
North Carolina. Showing his entrepreneurial streak, he
had started a training company called Knowledge Works,
which he operated from his new home in Florida, to
supplement retirement pay.
But for someone with Dr. Mitchell's background, it was
evident that the campaign against Al Qaeda would
produce opportunities. He began networking in military
and intelligence circles where he had a career's worth
He had grown up poor in Florida, Dr. Mitchell told
friends, and joined the Air Force in 1974, seeking
adventure. Stationed in Alaska, he learned the art of
disarming bombs and earned bachelor's and master's
degrees in psychology.
Robert J. Madigan, a psychology professor at the
University of Alaska who had worked closely with him,
remembered Dr. Mitchell stopping by years later. He
had completed his doctorate at the University of South
Florida in 1986, comparing diet and exercise in
controlling hypertension, and was working for the Air
Force in Spokane.
"I remember him saying they were preparing people for
intense interrogations, " Dr. Madigan said.
Military survival training was expanded after the
Korean War, when false confessions by American
prisoners led to sensational charges of communist
"brainwashing. " Military officials decided that
giving service members a taste of Chinese-style
interrogation would prepare them to withstand its
Air Force survival training was consolidated in 1966
at Fairchild Air Force Base in the parched hills
outside Spokane. The name of the training, Survival,
Evasion, Resistance, Escape, or SERE, suggests its
breadth: airmen and women learn to live off the land
and avoid capture, as well as how to behave if taken
In the 1980s, Dr. Jessen became the SERE psychologist
at the Air Force Survival School, screening
instructors who posed as enemy interrogators at the
mock prison camp and making sure rough treatment did
not go too far. He had grown up in a Mormon community
with a view of Grand Teton, earning a doctorate at
Utah State studying "family sculpting," in which
patients make physical models of their family to
portray emotional relationships.
Dr. Jessen moved in 1988 to the top psychologist' s
job at a parallel "graduate school" of survival
training, a short drive from the Air Force school. Dr.
Mitchell took his place.
The two men became part of what some Defense
Department officials called the "resistance mafia,"
experts on how to resist enemy interrogations. Both
lieutenant colonels and both married with children,
they took weekend ice-climbing trips together.
While many subordinates considered them brainy and
capable leaders, some fellow psychologists were more
skeptical. At the annual conference of SERE
psychologists, two colleagues recalled, Dr. Mitchell
offered lengthy put-downs of presentations that did
not suit him.
At the Air Force school, Dr. Mitchell was known for
enforcing the safety of interrogations; it might
surprise his later critics to learn that he eliminated
a tactic called "manhandling" after it produced a
spate of neck injuries, a colleague said.
At the SERE graduate school, Dr. Jessen is remembered
for an unusual job switch, from supervising
psychologist to mock enemy interrogator.
Dr. Jessen became so aggressive in that role that
colleagues intervened to rein him in, showing him
videotape of his "pretty scary" performance, another
Always, former and current SERE officials say, it is
understood that the training mimics the methods of
Mark Mays, the first psychologist at the Air Force
school, said that to make the fake prison camp
realistic, officials consulted American P.O.W.'s who
had just returned from harrowing camps in North
"It was clear that this is what we'd expect from our
enemies," said Dr. Mays, now a clinical psychologist
and lawyer in Spokane. "It was not something I could
ever imagine Americans would do."
Start of the Program
In December 2001, a small group of professors and law
enforcement and intelligence officers gathered outside
Philadelphia at the home of a prominent psychologist,
Martin E. P. Seligman, to brainstorm about Muslim
extremism. Among them was Dr. Mitchell, who attended
with a C.I.A. psychologist, Kirk M. Hubbard.
During a break, Dr. Mitchell introduced himself to Dr.
Seligman and said how much he admired the older man's
writing on "learned helplessness. " Dr. Seligman was
so struck by Dr. Mitchell's unreserved praise, he
recalled in an interview, that he mentioned it to his
wife that night. Later, he said, he was "grieved and
horrified" to learn that his work had been cited to
justify brutal interrogations.
Dr. Seligman had discovered in the 1960s that dogs
that learned they could do nothing to avoid small
electric shocks would become listless and simply whine
and endure the shocks even after being given a chance
Helplessness, which later became an influential
concept in the treatment of human depression, was also
much discussed in military survival training.
Instructors tried to stop short of producing
helplessness in trainees, since their goal was to
strengthen the spirit of service members in enemy
Dr. Mitchell, colleagues said, believed that producing
learned helplessness in a Qaeda interrogation subject
might ensure that he would comply with his captor's
demands. Many experienced interrogators disagreed,
asserting that a prisoner so demoralized would say
whatever he thought the interrogator expected.
At the C.I.A. in December 2001, Dr. Mitchell's
theories were attracting high-level attention. Agency
officials asked him to review a Qaeda manual, seized
in England, that coached terrorist operatives to
resist interrogations. He contacted Dr. Jessen, and
the two men wrote the first proposal to turn the
enemy's brutal techniques — slaps, stress positions,
sleep deprivation, wall-slamming and waterboarding —
into an American interrogation program.
By the start of 2002, Dr. Mitchell was consulting with
the C.I.A.'s Counterterrorist Center, whose director,
Cofer Black, and chief operating officer, Jose A.
Rodriguez Jr., were impressed by his combination of
visceral toughness and psychological jargon. One
person who heard some discussions said Dr. Mitchell
gave the C.I.A. officials what they wanted to hear. In
this person's words, Dr. Mitchell suggested that
interrogations required "a comparable level of fear
and brutality to flying planes into buildings."
By the end of March, when agency operatives captured
Abu Zubaydah, initially described as Al Qaeda's No. 3,
the Mitchell-Jessen interrogation plan was ready. At a
secret C.I.A. jail in Thailand, as reported in prior
news accounts, two F.B.I agents used conventional
rapport-building methods to draw vital information
from Mr. Zubaydah. Then the C.I.A. team, including Dr.
With the backing of agency headquarters, Dr. Mitchell
ordered Mr. Zubaydah stripped, exposed to cold and
blasted with rock music to prevent sleep. Not only the
F.B.I. agents but also C.I.A. officers at the scene
were uneasy about the harsh treatment. Among those
questioning the use of physical pressure, according to
one official present, were the Thailand station chief,
the officer overseeing the jail, a top interrogator
and a top agency psychologist.
Whether they protested to C.I.A. bosses is uncertain,
because the voluminous message traffic between
headquarters and the Thailand site remains classified.
One witness said he believed that "revisionism" in
light of the torture controversy had prompted some
participants to exaggerate their objections.
As the weeks passed, the senior agency psychologist
departed, followed by one F.B.I. agent and then the
other. Dr. Mitchell began directing the questioning
and occasionally speaking directly to Mr. Zubaydah,
one official said.
In late July 2002, Dr. Jessen joined his partner in
Thailand. On Aug. 1, the Justice Department completed
a formal legal opinion authorizing the SERE methods,
and the psychologists turned up the pressure. Over
about two weeks, Mr. Zubaydah was confined in a box,
slammed into the wall and waterboarded 83 times.
The brutal treatment stopped only after Dr. Mitchell
and Dr. Jessen themselves decided that Mr. Zubaydah
had no more information to give up. Higher-ups from
headquarters arrived and watched one more
waterboarding before agreeing that the treatment could
stop, according to a Justice Department legal opinion.
The Zubaydah case gave reason to question the
Mitchell-Jessen plan: the prisoner had given up his
most valuable information without coercion.
But top C.I.A. officials made no changes, and the
methods would be used on at least 27 more prisoners,
including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who was waterboarded
The business plans of Dr. Mitchell and Dr. Jessen,
meanwhile, were working out beautifully. They were
paid $1,000 to $2,000 a day apiece, one official said.
They had permanent desks in the Counterterrorist
Center, and could now claim genuine experience in
interrogating high-level Qaeda operatives.
Dr. Mitchell could keep working outside the C.I.A. as
well. At the Ritz-Carlton in Maui in October 2003, he
was featured at a high-priced seminar for corporations
on how to behave if kidnapped. He created new
companies, called Wizard Shop, later renamed Mind
Science, and What If. His first company, Knowledge
Works, was certified by the American Psychological
Association in 2004 as a sponsor of continuing
professional education. (A.P.A. dropped the
certification last year.)
In 2005, the psychologists formed Mitchell Jessen and
Associates, with offices in Spokane and Virginia and
five additional shareholders, four of them from the
military's SERE program. By 2007, the company employed
about 60 people, some with impressive résumés,
including Deuce Martinez, a lead C.I.A. interrogator
of Mr. Mohammed; Roger L. Aldrich, a legendary
military survival trainer; and Karen Gardner, a senior
training official at the F.B.I. Academy.
The company's C.I.A. contracts are classified, but
their total was well into the millions of dollars. In
2007 in a suburb of Tampa, Fla., Dr. Mitchell built a
house with a swimming pool, now valued at $800,000.
The psychologists' influence remained strong under
four C.I.A. directors. In 2006, in fact, when
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her legal
adviser, John B. Bellinger III, pushed back against
the C.I.A.'s secret detention program and its methods,
the director at the time, Michael V. Hayden, asked Dr.
Mitchell and Dr. Jessen to brief State Department
officials and persuade them to drop their objections.
They were unsuccessful.
By then, the national debate over torture had begun,
and it would undo the psychologists' business.
In a statement to employees on April 9, Leon E.
Panetta, President Obama's C.I.A. director, announced
the "decommissioning" of the agency's secret jails and
repeated a pledge not to use coercion. And there was
another item: "No C.I.A. contractors will conduct
Agency officials terminated the contracts for Mitchell
Jessen and Associates, and the psychologists'
lucrative seven-year ride was over. Within days, the
company had vacated its Spokane offices. The phones
were disconnected, and at neighboring businesses, no
one knew of a forwarding address.