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The Story of Mitchell Jessen & Associates: How a Psychologists Helped Develop CIA Torture Techniques

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We broadcast from Spokane, Washington, less than three miles from the headquarters of a secretive CIA contractor that played a key role in developing the George W. Bush administration’s interrogation methods. The firm, Mitchell Jessen & Associates, is named after the two military psychologists who founded the company, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen. Beginning in 2002, the CIA hired the psychologists to train interrogators in brutal techniques, including waterboarding, sleep deprivation and pain. We speak with three journalists who have closely followed the story. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re on the road in Spokane, Washington, less than three miles from the headquarters of a secretive CIA contractor that played a key role in developing the Bush administration’s interrogation methods. The firm, Mitchell Jessen & Associates, is named after the two military psychologists who founded the company, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen.

Beginning in 2002, the CIA hired the psychologists to train interrogators in brutal techniques, including waterboarding, sleep deprivation and pain. Both of the men had years of military training in a secretive program known as SERE — Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape — which teaches soldiers to endure captivity in enemy hands. Mitchell and Jessen reverse-engineered the tactics taught in SERE training for use on prisoners held in the CIA’s secret prisons.

The declassified torture memos released last week relied heavily on the advice of Mitchell and Jessen. In one memo, Justice Department attorney Jay Bybee wrote, quote, “Based on your research into the use of these methods at the SERE school and consultation with others with expertise in the field of psychology and interrogation, you do not anticipate that any prolonged harm would result from the use of the waterboard.”

Well, today we’re going to take a detailed look at Mitchell Jessen’s role. We’re joined now by three journalists who have closely followed this story. Katherine Eban joins us from New York. Her 2007 article in vanityfair.com, “Rorschach and Awe,” gave a detailed account of the role of James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen. Mark Benjamin joins us from Washington, DC, national correspondent for Salon.com. He wrote about Mitchell and Jessen in his 2007 article called “The CIA’s Torture Teachers.” And here in Spokane, I’m joined by Karen Steele. She is a former reporter at The Spokesman-Review, where she covered this story.

We called Mitchell Jessen & Associates, based here in Spokane, not far from these studios, to invite them on the show, but, well, we did not hear back from them. Mitchell and Jessen have avoided speaking to the media for years. Two years ago, they released a statement to Vanity Fair that read, quote, “We are proud of the work we have done for our country.”

Well, why don’t we begin first with Mark Benjamin in Washington. How did you first hear of Mitchell and Jessen, Mitchell Jessen & Associates?

MARK BENJAMIN: I first heard of those two psychologists when I was doing my reporting a couple of years ago from — frankly, from some of their associates and people that worked with them in the military. And their associates were concerned, because this SERE training that you referred to, it’s not designed to be an interrogation tool. It’s designed to teach soldiers to resist, frankly, what are tools developed by communists, used by the Koreans, for example, during the Korean War to force false confessions out of soldiers. And so, we were teaching our soldiers how to — the SERE training teaches soldiers how to resist that kind of abuse. The reason it was brought to my attention is some of these Mitchell and Jessen’s colleagues were very, very concerned that these guys had, quote, “gotten their hands dirty,” unquote, by reverse-engineering these things. Frankly, their colleagues thought it was a very stupid idea, for obvious reasons.

AMY GOODMAN: Katherine Eban, tell us a little about these two men, exactly who they are, and what you found in this very comprehensive piece that you did called “Rorschach and Awe,” the first piece.

KATHERINE EBAN: Thanks very much, and it’s nice to be here, Amy.

You know, these were guys who have been described to me as op-docs. They were, you know, Ph.D.s who wanted to be sort of in the operational arena, which is a very seductive arena to be in. But effectively, they were teachers and overseers of a SERE program where they were just monitoring, you know, the well-being of troops. They weren’t scientists. They had no data, according to my sources, to show that if you reverse-engineered these tactics, they would be effective in eliciting information. So, you know, the description that I got, also from colleagues of theirs, is that these guys were wannabes. You know, they were wannabe operational psychologists, like, you know, Jodie Foster’s character in Silence of the Lambs. And they weren’t.

But apparently — and now we really see the extent of it — they were very convincing in selling the use of these tactics to the CIA. And I guess it was a moment in time when our government was really desperate for any kind of solutions. But the fact that they landed on this without any data to justify its use, without any proof of effectiveness, is really what was remarkable to me in my reporting.

AMY GOODMAN: Mark Benjamin — well, both of you, actually, have now written new pieces. Mark, as you look to the torture memos, how does Mitchell Jessen fit in? These new documents that have been released, well, pretty much unredacted; there are — you know, it is blacked out especially around the names of the people involved.

MARK BENJAMIN: Well, we already knew, because of reporting like mine and Katherine’s, how crucial these psychologists were in developing the CIA’s torture program. I think what the documents show is how crucial they were in carrying it out. In other words, if you look through these memos, these Justice Department memos, the whole rationale, you know, or the defense of the program from the Justice Department is that it’s safe. You know, in other words, it’s not torture according to doctors, and there are doctors there to monitor what’s going on, and there are doctors there to make sure that the person being interrogated doesn’t die on them. And they have data allegedly showing that, you know, SERE, this training, when we do it to soldiers, it doesn’t — you know, it doesn’t kill them, and it doesn’t make them crazy from the abuse they do during training. And so, it must be OK.

I mean, in other words, I think that —- I don’t think you can overemphasize the extent to which the Justice Department relied on the advice and consent and participation of these psychologists, not just in designing the program, but carrying it out and arguing that it was safe and that it wasn’t torture. I mean, they were an absolutely vital part of this program, either in the room while these people were being tortured or watching on videotape.

AMY GOODMAN: Karen Dorn Steele, you were writing for The Spokesman-Review, and after Mark Benjamin’s piece came out, you did your first. Of course, this is a local story. We’re broadcasting here at the PBS station in Spokane, KSPS, that’s run by the Spokane Public Schools. Not three miles from here is the American Legion Building. Tell us what you learned in the reports that you started to do here in Spokane.

KAREN DORN STEELE: Yeah, after we had read Mark’s piece, we did some research, Bill Morlin and I, on who these guys are. We pulled their corporate records and other records, and we found out that they had 120 employees. And they opened their rather large offices here in March of 2005, although they had had contracts with the CIA prior to that. We learned that they came out of the SERE program, as has been discussed, and that they lived here because Spokane is a good place to live. They had many military connections here. These programs are still very big, the SERE program at Fairchild Air Force Base and the -—

AMY GOODMAN: How far is Fairchild Air Force Base from here?

KAREN DORN STEELE: It’s just about three miles west of town. It’s very, very close. It’s the big Air Force community. And the agency, the overarching agency that runs the SERE program nationwide also has a major facility here. It’s called the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency. And sources within JPRA knew a lot about Mitchell and Jessen. They said they were self-promoters, they were cowboys. They disapproved of the kind of techniques and their cozying up to the CIA. But they told us that they live here because it’s a nice place to live. And even though their mailing address is Langley, Virginia, they’re based in Spokane.

AMY GOODMAN: I understand Mitchell doesn’t live here anymore, but Jessen does.

KAREN DORN STEELE: That’s correct. That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: And why was SERE big at Fairchild?

KAREN DORN STEELE: SERE was big at Fairchild because every pilot in the US Air Force is required to go through this Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape programming to learn what they might be subject to if they ever fell into the hands of an enemy that didn’t follow the Geneva Accords. And of course we know that these techniques were reversed by Mitchell and Jessen for the CIA and the black sites overseas.

We also followed rather closely the debate within the American Psychological Association about the ethics of psychologists participating in sites where they were arguably doing harm, not doing no harm, as their guidelines say. And APA distanced themselves from Mitchell and Jessen, so they were not APA members, but we found out that one of their board members, Joseph Mazzarato [sic.] — Matarazzo, excuse me — who’s an emeritus psychology professor at Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland, is a former president of the APA. And so, after we broke that story, then the APA could no longer say there weren’t ties between this organization and their organization.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break. Then we’re going to come back to this discussion. Our guest in studio is a former reporter with The Spokesman-Review. Like many newspapers in this country, there have been a number of buyouts and layoffs at the paper here. Karen Dorn Steele is a George Polk Award-winning reporter for her work on the Hanford Reservation. We’ll talk about that in a minute. But today we’re talking in light of the memos that have just been released by the US government about Jessen, Mitchell, psychologists who run a firm here, well, that are involved in the coercive interrogations around the world. Our guests in New York, Katherine Eban, and in Washington, DC, Mark Benjamin. We’ll be back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: Here in Spokane, we’re broadcasting from the PBS station KSPS, run by the Spokane Public Schools, and we’re talking about an institution, a company, not three miles from here, operating out of the American Legion Hall in Spokane.

Our guest here in the studio is Karen Dorn Steele, a George Polk Award-winning journalist. She wrote for The Spokesman-Review a series of pieces on Jessen, Mitchell. In Washington, DC, Mark Benjamin. In New York, in our firehouse studio, we’re joined by Katherine Eban of Vanity Fair.

I wanted to ask about Dick Cheney’s latest comments. Dick Cheney is demanding that the CIA release memos that show that these enhanced interrogation techniques were effective. He said, “What we authorized wasn’t torture. But it worked. We got actionable intelligence from these techniques.” Katherine Eban, from your research, what did you find?

KATHERINE EBAN: Well, from my research, I found exactly the opposite, that there had been an FB — the issue is very active over the detainee Abu Zubaydah, and there had been an FBI interrogation team with him initially, which had basically nursed him back to health after gunshot wounds and used rapport-building, classic rapport-building tactics, which is what the FBI excels at, and it was because of those tactics that he revealed that KSM, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, was the architect of 9/11 and also revealed the name of Jose Padilla, and that in fact he was talking to interrogators until Mitchell showed up along with the CIA interrogation team, began imposing these harsh tactics, and Zubaydah clammed up.

So, in response to that, they made a request to accelerate these tactics. I think they refer to it in the memos that were just released as an “intense pressure phase.” You know, basically, what my sources say is, “Sure, these tactics, these coercive tactics, can get you to talk. But about what? So how do you verify the legitimacy of the information?” Well, apparently, under torture, Zubaydah gave investigators a lot of false leads, which ate up the time of American intelligence back at home. So, you know, the debate is a very live one. There are people in the CIA who say these tactics absolutely worked, and I do think that this is going to be a central question of investigations as they go forward, is the effectiveness of these tactics. And people are now — yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, I thought it was very interesting, Katherine Eban, how you describe what happened. The FBI there, they’re getting intelligence that they think is actually useful. George Tenet, then Director of Central Intelligence, hears about this. He’s very proud that intelligence is coming out from the interrogation. And then he’s informed it’s not coming from CIA interrogators, it’s coming from FBI interrogators. And he hits the roof. And that’s when they send in Jessen and the other CIA interrogators. You could take it from there.

KATHERINE EBAN: Right. You know, and let me just say that they sent in Mitchell. I don’t believe that Jessen was there at that point. But it was interesting —-

AMY GOODMAN: I mean Mitchell.

KATHERINE EBAN: —- that Mitchell Jessen — Mitchell’s company at that point closed up shop about a day before — the day after Zubaydah was captured, and then he was deployed to Thailand to the safe house where they were interrogating Zubaydah. But what you had in this situation was a classic turf war. You know, you had the CIA wanting to take the credit for getting actionable intelligence.

As soon as they started using these coercive tactics, it had a rather profound effect, which is that the FBI felt compelled to withdraw their investigators from the scene. The effect of that, the end result, is that the CIA had total control over these interrogations. So, by using these coercive tactics, they also won a turf war.

AMY GOODMAN: Mark Benjamin, as you look at these torture memos right now and the whole cachet around Mitchell Jessen, if you can call it that, around getting effective intelligence when, as Katherine Eban was saying, it was the opposite.

MARK BENJAMIN: Well, that’s right. And when you look at the memos, there are even some hints there that show what interrogators have long believed, which is that these are not effective ways to gather intelligence, what Mitchell and Jessen were doing is just — it’s just not an effective way of running an intelligence operation.

And I would just add, you know, my reporting suggests that when the CIA put together this interrogation program, this torture program, they didn’t involve any experienced interrogators. There were no interrogators involved. Nobody who knows how to question — effectively question a suspect set this thing up. The CIA didn’t have anybody on board that knew how to do this stuff. I mean, it was people who just frankly didn’t know what they were doing. I mean, you know, they knew how to train soldiers how to resist torture, but not how to get effective intelligence.

And, in fact, if you look at the memos that came out last week, there is a reference in one of the memos to a CIA inspector general report. And according to the reference, the CIA inspector general criticized the CIA’s own interrogation program, saying essentially they didn’t know when somebody was being recalcitrant and wouldn’t talk and when they just didn’t know anything. That’s the problem with torture. And so, they ended up torturing people even though they had already said everything they know. I mean, it was just — and that’s the problem with torture. You don’t know — I mean, how do you know when to torture somebody and when not to? How do you know when they’re telling you the truth and when they’re not? It’s just, you know — and I think the memos, you know, while they’re meant to back up and say that this torture program is defensible, I think if you look at them pretty closely, that that facade starts to fall apart pretty fast.

AMY GOODMAN: Karen Dorn Steele?

KAREN DORN STEELE: Yes, we interviewed two former SERE instructors here in Spokane, who — one person who’s now a lawyer, another who’s a psychologist. And the psychologist, Mark Mays, told us that the most important function of the psychologist in the legitimate SERE program is to make sure that the interrogators aren’t going out of bounds, because when they do, you get bad information.

AMY GOODMAN: Mark Benjamin, we were both covering in 2007 the APA national convention that was taking place in San Francisco. At that time, the dissident psychologists who wanted the APA to impose a ban on members participating in coercive interrogations lost. They ultimately found this loophole in the bylaws and found that they could put out the referendum to the membership instead of keep getting it voted down by the leadership. But what about the APA and — well, and Mitchell Jessen?

MARK BENJAMIN: Well, you know, as we mentioned, Mitchell and Jessen were not members of the APA. But I think the sort of, you know, Reader’s Digest version is that I think it’s safe to say that the psychologists have been traditionally very, very close to the military. You know, they’ve been working with the military and the CIA for years and are closer than, say, psychiatrists and other doctors. I think it’s fair to say that the APA, the psychologists, as opposed to psychiatrists and doctors, have been much more willing since September 11th to play ball, essentially, to not remove themselves from interrogations as doctors and psychiatrists did, to continue to participate.

And I think that’s reflected in the way Mitchell and Jessen, you know, were so important here. I think the psychologists saw a way to be players at the table, and that was reflected in their association, in the APA. And the APA essentially allowed their — you know, wrote rules, year after year after year, that would allow the continued participation of psychologists in these brutal interrogations. And now that these memos have come out, I think it’s really clear how important the government saw those psychologists were, in having them in the room or watching on video or designing the program or carrying it out.

AMY GOODMAN: Katherine Eban, I think you’d like to chime in here, as you talk with a number of top military psychologists and even those at the beginning who were recruited into an APA committee that would investigate whether psychologists should continue, people like Kleinman and others who you quote saying, “I think Mitchell and Jessen have caused more harm to American national security than they’ll ever understand.”

KATHERINE EBAN: Yeah. I mean, what was interesting is, is that there was suspicion initially that the psychologists who participated on this APA committee that basically sort of approved participation in interrogations, that they were somehow behind these coercive tactics. What you really had was almost what I describe as a Wizard of Oz scenario. You had Mitchell and Jessen behind the curtain driving, you know, the sort of good name of psychologists, as it were, into this very murky, dark area.

And I think, you know, what’s really important in the debate going forward among psychologists is the extent to which psychologists loaned their names and loaned their credentials and their Ph.D.s to this kind of activity and essentially were used by the Bush administration to provide a kind of “get out of jail free” card for the people who were, you know, doing these interrogations, because the logic, which I think Mark had mentioned, is, you know, this circular logic. So long as there are trained psychologists from the SERE program who are on site at these interrogations who are saying that these detainees can withstand this treatment, are not being harmed psychologically, then it’s not torture. So, you know, you’ve got this sort of [inaudible] tortured — tortured logic, which is the phrase that has come up, but it’s this sort of self-justifying loop in which professionals are loaning their credentials to this kind of activity.

And you see the same thing in the Office of Legal Counsel, where you have, you know, lawyers loaning their credentials to approving what are clear violations of the Geneva Conventions.

AMY GOODMAN: Karen Dorn Steele, this is both a global issue and, as is usually the case, a local one, because Mitchell Jessen is right here in Spokane. There were local protests after your reports came out. Describe what happened.

KAREN DORN STEELE: Yes, they were about a month after our first stories and some of the follow-ups on the APA debate. There was a street protest. Maybe three dozen people showed up. Many of them were psychology students from local colleges who said, “Not in our names should this be done, and this is a violation of everything we’ve been taught in schools.” And there were intelligence agents there. We couldn’t determine who they were, but they were photographing everybody in the crowd. But Spokane is not a place that’s given to street protests normally, although there have been some anti-Iraq war protests. But this was an unusual event, and it triggered some passion here.

AMY GOODMAN: And yet, they continue, and they not only have Mitchell Jessen, but little other companies that are right in the American Legion Hall.

KAREN DORN STEELE: Yeah. There’s a cluster of national security companies that all come out of the SERE and JPRA program that are still here and functioning.

AMY GOODMAN: I went over to The Spokesman-Review

yesterday and was speaking to the editor. I said, “Have you ever been able to speak to Mitchell Jessen? I mean, they’re a local company.” And he said, “No, they do not respond.”

KAREN DORN STEELE: No, they just gave us the same response that you read earlier on the program, that they condemn torture.

AMY GOODMAN: Mark Benjamin, do you think we’re going to see any arrests? Do you think — well, President Obama has said they’re not going after CIA interrogators, questioners. What do you think?

MARK BENJAMIN: No, I don’t think we’re going to see any arrests. And I think that the significance of what the Obama administration has done over the last few days or announced over the last few days has been largely missed, which is, if you look at the President’s statements and you combine them with the statements of Rahm Emanuel, the Chief of Staff, and Eric Holder, the Attorney General, if you put those together, you will see that over the last couple of days the Obama administration has announced that no one, not the people who carried out the torture program or the people who designed the program or the people that authorized the program or the people who said that it was legal even though they knew that it frankly wasn’t, none of those people will ever face charges. The Attorney General has announced that not only that, the government will pay the legal fees for anybody who is brought up on any charges anywhere in the world or has to go before Congress. They will be provided attorneys.

And not only that, they have given this blanket immunity, if you will, in return for nothing. I mean, in other words, you know, as you said at the top of the program, Obama yesterday — President Obama was at the CIA and called these things “mistakes,” even though they were very carefully designed, and hasn’t demanded anything in return for this immunity. I mean, you know, in other words, it’s not like the Obama administration said, “Hey, let’s take a close look at this, and let’s have some people come forward and testify, and let’s take a close look at this program and see if the claims of former Vice President Dick Cheney are really true, that we really did get some good information out of this program, it really was effective.” The Obama administration has demanded nothing and has announced, you know, effectively that the story is over and nobody will be held to account ever.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you, Mark Benjamin of Salon.com in Washington, DC; Katherine Eban in New York at the firehouse studio, vf.com, your pieces appear. But before I say goodbye to you, Karen Dorn Steele, I wanted to ask you about one other issue that is very close to here in Spokane, and it’s the issue of the Hanford Reservation, for which your coverage, “Wasteland,” won a George Polk Award.

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