WASHINGTON — James Mitchell and John “Bruce” Jessen, two psychologists whose firm made at least $81 million designing torture techniques for the CIA, “did not create or establish the CIA enhanced interrogation program,” their lawyers have argued. It’s a strange claim — especially now that promotional material for Mitchell’s forthcoming book calls him the “creator of the CIA’s controversial Enhanced Interrogation Program” and brags that the book offers “a dramatic firsthand account of the design, implementation, flaws and aftermath of the program.”
Enhanced Interrogation: Inside the Minds and Motives of the Islamic Terrorists Trying To Destroy America could complicate Mitchell and Jessen’s efforts to block a civil lawsuit brought against them by two former CIA black-site detainees and the family of a third prisoner who died in CIA custody. Arguing that Mitchell and Jessen were not key architects of the interrogation program will be “a major focus” of their defense, the psychologists’ lawyers wrote in an April court filing.
The book’s promotional material — which also describes Mitchell as having “a leading role in the development of the CIA’s Enhanced Interrogation Program” and being “one of the primary terrorist interrogators” — isn’t the only potential obstacle to the defense’s strategy. The Senate Intelligence Committee’s December 2014 report on the interrogation program also details the involvement of the psychologists.
The two men “developed the list of enhanced interrogation techniques” and “personally conducted interrogations of some of the CIA’s most significant detainees using these techniques,” according to a declassified summary of report. Mitchell and Jessen are identified in the report by the code names Grayson Swigert and Hammond Dunbar, respectively.
The report documents how they pushed for the use of waterboarding, which they described as an “absolutely convincing technique.” According to the Senate’s findings, Mitchell and Jessen’s consulting group received about $81 million from the CIA, in addition to a separate multimillion-dollar indemnity deal covering their potential legal fees.
Mitchell has slammed the Senate report, which was put together by the Democratic members of the Intelligence Committee, as a partisan effort that amounted to “throwing [him] under the bus” and “rewriting history.” But he has also spoken publicly about waterboarding CIA prisoners and defended the tactic as a means of instilling enough fear in prisoners that they would subsequently provide useful intelligence. Jessen has largely avoided media exposure and could not be reached for comment. Mitchell similarly declined to comment for this story.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which is serving as legal counsel for the torture victims in their lawsuit, alleges that Mitchell and Jessen “designed, implemented, and personally administered an experimental torture program” for the CIA. It’s seeking damages for its clients. The ACLU legal team could request a copy of the manuscript of the book during discovery, the pretrial procedure in which the two sides swap documents and other evidence.
There are many, many Mitchells and Jessens waiting for another attack on the homeland. Retired Air Force Reserve Col. Steven Kleinman
Though Mitchell had no formal experience as an interrogator before working with the CIA, his interest in the process dates back years.
When Air Force Reserve Col. Steven Kleinman, a veteran military interrogator who is now retired, first met Mitchell at a special operations course in Florida in the late 1990s, the topic of interrogation came up in the break room. Mitchell drew a diagram of what psychologists call the learned helplessness cycle and said, “This is the only way to get people to talk,” Kleinman recalled to HuffPost.
Kleinman got to know Mitchell and Jessen better at the Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape school in Spokane, Washington, where he was a senior intelligence officer until 2005, and where Mitchell and Jessen had worked as psychologists. At the SERE school, U.S. troops learn how to endure brutal treatment in the event that they are taken captive by a country that does not abide by the Geneva Conventions.
It was something of a known secret among the SERE community in Spokane that Mitchell and Jessen had a lucrative contract with the CIA, according to Kleinman. They built an impressive training facility nearby and didn’t exactly hide the source of the revenue. But people generally assumed they were training individuals in how to resist torture, rather than promoting the use of those methods in interrogations.
Around 2002, the same year that Mitchell and Jessen began working with the CIA, Kleinman received an email from a Defense Department official asking for his thoughts on using SERE techniques offensively in interrogations. Kleinman warned against it, writing that it would be illegal, ineffective and likely to produce unreliable information.
“What I didn’t know was that someone who had been in the same building was supporting and encouraging these things,” he told HuffPost.
Although Kleinman is deeply critical of Mitchell and Jessen for exporting SERE techniques to the CIA’s interrogation program, he believes the two men were acting on honorable intentions to serve their country. He places the bulk of the blame for the CIA’s torture program on then-CIA Director George Tenet and senior staff at the agency, whom he said should have recognized the psychologists’ lack of experience with interrogations and terror suspects and shut the plan down.
“What I don’t want people to think is that you can punish Mitchell and Jessen and the problem is solved,” Kleinman said. “There are many, many Mitchells and Jessens waiting for another attack on the homeland.”
Multiple websites list the publication date for Enhanced Interrogation as May 10, 2016. Two stores in the Books A Million chain and two local Washington bookstores confirmed that they expected it to be available then.
But Bill Harlow, a former CIA spokesman who co-wrote the book with Mitchell, said they have not yet set a publication date. He dismissed suggestions that the book’s release had been delayed, describing the May 10 publication date as “speculation.” Harlow previously co-authored books with Tenet, who headed the CIA in the inaugural days of the torture program, and Jose Rodriguez, the former head of the agency’s clandestine service who ordered the destruction of at least two videotapes that documented interrogations.
Publisher Crown Forum did not respond to a question about the timing of the book’s release. Although Enhanced Interrogation appears prominently on Crown Forum’s website, clicking on the cover for more information produces a “page not found” error.
Edelweiss, a website that tracks upcoming books, states that Enhanced Interrogation has been “postponed indefinitely.”