March 28

2002: The Torture Business proved highly profitable as a business

The CIA and the Department of Justice were the lead government agencies that authorized the use of torture techniques against prisoners in the War against Terror. The CIA contracted psychologists to devise and supervise tough innovative interrogation techniques whose use would have arguable “scientific and psychological” justification. James Mitchell and Bruce Jesse, two former senior psychologists experienced in the military SERE training program (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) were very persuasive in convincing the CIA that they had the expertise needed for the task. They offered a set of torture techniques (euphemistically called “enhanced interrogation techniques” EIT) and they offered the “patina of pseudo-science.” No one asked them to provide scientific data showing these techniques to be safe and effective.

“It’s one thing to say, ‘Take off the gloves.’ It’s another to say there was a science to it. SERE came in as the science” But Michael Rolince, former section chief of the F.B.I.’s International Terrorism Operations, said the tactics were a “voodoo science.”  (Katherine Eban. Rorschach and Awe, Vanity Fair, July 17, 2007)

Mitchell and Jessen saw a golden business opportunity. They founded Mitchell Jessen & Associates co-owned by seven individual investors, six of who were in the SERE program, including Roger Aldrich “one of the founding fathers of the survival program in this country” who had been Mitchell and Jessen’s superior at SERE. Aldrich was said to be the initiator of the idea of reverse-engineering SERE and contracting out services to the military and CIA for a great deal of money. Another shareholder was Randall Spivey, the ex-chief of Operations, Policy and Oversight Division of the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency which oversaw SERE. Another pivotal shareholder was Joseph Matarazzo, a former president of the American Psychological Association who worked for the CIA. (Jeffrey Kaye. Expanding the Investigation into SERE Torture, Aug 14, 2009)

The Senate Select Intelligence Committee’s Executive Summary (released in 2014) confirms that the CIA signed a sweetheart deal with the Mitchell Jessen & Associates company: “the value of the CIA’s base contract with the company formed by the psychologists with all options exercised was in excess of $180 million.” The deal initially provided the two principals with $1,000-a-day tax-free retainers; they collected $81 million by 2009 when their contract was terminated. Additionally, the CIA agreed to an “indemnity promise” covering at leas $5 million in legal fees.

The Senate report states that CIA’s Office of Medical Services (OMS) raised objections about the two psychologists who were overstepping specified boundaries that presented a conflict of interest:

“the same individuals applied an [enhanced interrogation technique] which only they were approved to employ, [they] judged both its effectiveness and detainee resilience, and implicitly [they] proposed continued use of the technique—at a daily compensation reported to be $1800/day, or four times that of interrogators who could not use the technique.”

According to documents in the Senate Armed Services Committee’s report (2009), as early as December 2001, the Office of Legal Counsel for the Defense Department (Richard Shiffrin) contacted Lieutenant Colonel Dan Baumgartner, the Chief of Staff of the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA) which oversaw SERE survival training seeking information about possibly incorporating SERE methods for use in prisoners interrogations.  Baumgartner noted that they were “less reliable” and could in fact achieve the opposite of the intended effect, that is, increase a prisoner’s resistance. He also warned that they would have an “intolerable public and political backlash when discovered.”

The Defense Department also received negative reactions from at least half a dozen SERE trainers about the use of SERE techniques for coercive interrogations of suspected terrorists. They pointed out that SERE trainers who were not trained as interrogators and the SERE techniques were to inoculate U.S. soldiers against torture. But the warnings against the use of SERE tactics were disregarded by the CIA and the Pentagon. 

 “Mitchell and Jessen’s methods were so controversial that, among colleagues, the reaction to their names alone became a litmus test of one’s attitude toward coercion and human rights. Their critics called them the “Mormon mafia” (a reference to their shared religion) and the “poster boys” (referring to the F.B.I.’s “most wanted” posters, which are where some thought their activities would land them).” (Eban. Rorschach and Awe, Vanity Fair, 2007)

Several C.I.A. officers began sending messages to the agency’s headquarters questioning the utility — and the legality — of what they were doing. But such qualms from field officers were not only rejected by CIA headquarters; “[Jose] Rodriguez told the disturbed agents to scrub all language about legality from their communications.” The torture program thoroughly penetrated the ‘culture’ of the agency. (David Bromwich. Working the Dark Side, London Review of Books, Jan. 8, 2015)

The documents show that these psychologists were crucial in developing and carrying out the CIA’s torture program. The Justice Department memos defending torture cited the professional opinion of psychologists who – though they never provided data to back up their claims – they lent the aura of legitimacy to the exculpating opinion that the techniques were “safe;” and therefore, not torture. Though they were not medical doctors, they were given the role of doctors and they were referred to as Doc Bruce and Doc Jim. Investigative reporter for, Benjamin Mark stated:

“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.”  (The Story of Mitchell Jessen & Associates: How Psychologists in Spokane, WA, Helped Develop the CIA’s Torture Techniques, Democracy Now)


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