Two Psychologists Behind The CIA Torture Program Raked In Millions Of Dollars

As it turns out, designing and running a torture program for the U.S. government is a lucrative business. According to the Feinstein report, released Tuesday to worldwide outrage, two psychologists responsible for designing the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” have raked in more than $81 million for their services as contractors.

After a closer look at the Senate Intelligence Committee’s 525-page summation of the CIA torture program, the story only gets worse: these psychologists had little to no background in interrogation. They recommended abusive treatments on the basis of little more than psychological conjecture, over and against the objections of experienced interrogators. They served as both interrogators and the psychologists responsible for overseeing the harm done to the detainee — at the same time.

Identified only by the pseudonyms Dr. Grayson Swigert and Dr. Hammond Dunbar in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report, the psychologists were revealed as former Air Force personnel Jim Mitchell and Bruce Jessen by The New York Times in a 2009 investigation. As the Senate Committee concluded, neither Mitchell nor Jessen had experience with interrogation or any particular familiarity with Al-Qaeda when they offered their services to the CIA. Instead, both men had limited exposure to harsh interrogation techniques through their work with US Air Force Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape School in a program that teaches Air Force pilots how to resist torture if they are captured by governments that “do not recognize the Geneva Conventions.”

Mitchell saw an opportunity in the post-9/11 counterterrorism efforts. Drawing off the psychological research of Dr. Martin Seligman (who ironically works on theories of happiness), Mitchell theorized that detainees could be made to give up intelligence if they were forced into a state of “learned helplessness” — in which “individuals might become passive and depressed in response to adverse or uncontrollable events.”

In 2002, Mitchell and Jessen were commissioned into reviewing an old al Qaeda manual on how to resist interrogation techniques. Afterwards, they recommended a number of brutal techniques to induce learned helplessness and provoke detainees to talk, according to the report:

(1) the attention grasp, (2) walling, (3) facial hold, (4) facial slap, (5) cramped confinement, (6) standing, (7) stress positions, (8) sleep deprivation, (9) water-board, (10) use of diapers, (11) use of insects and (12) mock burial.

After the CIA captured valuable target Abu Zabaydah in 2002, Mitchell had a chance to demonstrate his theory. The two psychologists were flown to Detention Site Green, believed to be located in Thailand, to oversee the interrogation. Zabaydah was stripped, placed in a cold room and blasted with loud rock music to be kept from sleep. He was later waterboarded 83 times. Afterwards, a number of CIA personnel on site, including a top interrogator and another agency psychologist, voiced their dissent with the new methods.

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But Mitchell and Jessen thought the enhanced interrogation techniques had proven a success, according to the Feinstein report. In a cable attributed to the two men, they wrote that Zabaydah’s interrogation "should be used as a template for future interrogation of high value captives.”

The CIA must have agreed: the pair’s enhanced interrogation techniques were exported to other secret prisons around the globe. The agency management did not seem concerned that the psychologists did not have much, if any, experience with many of the techniques that they had recommended and were now overseeing. For example, the Senate Intelligence Committee report notes that neither of the two men had any direct experience with waterboarding, as only Navy training exposes military personnel to it.

More knowledge of and experience with waterboarding — a treatment which has been described as a mock execution — was certainly warranted. In an August 2002 email, attributed to them, the pair wrote that Zabaydah was ready to capitulate after his first waterboarding experience:

As for our buddy; he capitulated the first time, the email states. We chose to expose him over and over until we had a high degree of confidence he wouldn't hold back.

The contractor-psychologists would go on to oversee a further 82 waterboarding attempts. The red flags should have been waving.

Instead, the CIA contracted most of its torture scheme out to Mitchell and Jessen. As the Feinstein report summarizes:

The psychologists personally conducted interrogations of some of the CIA's most significant detainees using these techniques. They also evaluated whether detainees' psychological state allowed for the continued use of the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques, including some detainees whom they were themselves interrogating or had interrogated.

As the years wore on, Mitchell and Jessen’s involvement as both psychologists and interrogators began to prompt concern inside the agency about conflicts of interest.

[This conflict of interest was] nowhere more graphic than in the setting in which 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 $1800/day – or four times that of the interrogators who could not use the technique, the Feinstein report concluded.

Three years later, by 2005, Mitchell and Jessen had figured out how to monetize their contributions to national security. They formed the company Mitchell Jessen and Associates, and signed a contract with the CIA to manage the agency’s interrogation scheme. By 2006, the contract was valued at upwards of $180 million with all options excised; the deal would eventually bring in over $81 million before the program was discontinued in 2009.

By signing the contract, the CIA effectively outsourced most of its torture program. Mitchell and Jessen supplied personnel at the interrogation sights, served as liaisons between the agency and foreign governments and conducted research into the “terrorist mindset.” But many of the staff members they hired were in turn former CIA personnel, many of whom had previously participated in torturing detainees. The COO of Mitchell Jessen and Associates was the former head of the CIA division that oversaw the Renditions and Detentions Group, the Feinstein report notes.

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Perhaps the worst of it all — besides the fact that two medical personnel who pledged to use their talents to heal, not to harm designed a devastating regimen of abusive techniques — is that the CIA signed a $5 million indemnification agreement with Mitchell Jessen and Associates. Under that agreement, the CIA is responsible for paying the company’s legal fees, including in instances of criminal prosecution, up through 2021. To demonstrate the absurdity of this: between 2007 and 2012, the CIA spent more than $1 million on legal fees, including for representation for the two psychologists before a Congressional committee hearing in November 2008.

When approached in 2009, Mitchell had no comment. Tuesday, he had a choice response for ABC News about the Feinstein report: politically motivated bulls**t.

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