The CIA's torture teachers
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Editor, The Konformist
The CIA's torture teachers
Psychologists helped the CIA exploit a secret military program to
develop brutal interrogation tactics -- likely with the approval of
the Bush White House.
By Mark Benjamin
Jun. 21, 2007 | There is growing evidence of high-level coordination
between the Central Intelligence Agency and the U.S. military in
developing abusive interrogation techniques used on terrorist
suspects. After the Sept. 11 attacks, both turned to a small cadre
of psychologists linked to the military's secretive Survival,
Evasion, Resistance and Escape program to "reverse-engineer"
techniques originally designed to train U.S. soldiers to resist
torture if captured, by exposing them to brutal treatment. The
military's use of SERE training for interrogations in the war on
terror was revealed in detail in a recently declassified report. But
the CIA's use of such tactics -- working in close coordination with
the military -- until now has remained largely unknown.
According to congressional sources and mental healthcare
professionals knowledgeable about the secret program who spoke with
Salon, two CIA-employed psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce
Jessen, were at the center of the program, which likely violated the
Geneva Conventions on the treatment of prisoners. The two are
currently under investigation: Salon has learned that Daniel
Dell'Orto, the principal deputy general counsel at the Department of
Defense, sent a "document preservation" order on May 15 to the
chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other top Pentagon
officials forbidding the destruction of any document mentioning
Mitchell and Jessen or their psychological consulting firm,
Mitchell, Jessen and Associates, based in Spokane, Wash. Dell'Orto's
order was in response to a May 1 request from Sen. Carl Levin, the
Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who is
investigating the abuse of prisoners in U.S. custody.
Mitchell and Jessen have worked as contractors for the CIA since
9/11. Both were previously affiliated with the military's SERE
program, which at its main school at Fort Bragg puts elite special
operations forces through brutal mock interrogations, from sensory
deprivation to simulated drowning.
A previously classified report by the Defense Department's inspector
general, made public last month, revealed in vivid detail how the
military -- in flat contradiction to previous denials -- used SERE
as a basis for interrogating suspected al-Qaida prisoners at
Guantánamo Bay, and later in Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, the
involvement of the CIA, which was secretly granted broad authority
by President Bush days after 9/11 to target terrorists worldwide,
suggests that both the military and the spy agency were following a
policy approved by senior Bush administration officials.
Close coordination between the CIA and the Pentagon is referred to
in military lingo as "jointness." A retired high-level military
official, familiar with the detainee abuse scandals, confirmed that
such "jointness" requires orchestration at the top levels of
government. "This says that somebody is acting as a bridge between
the CIA and the Defense Department," he said, "because you've got
the [CIA] side and the military side, and they are collaborating."
Human-rights expert Scott Horton, who chairs the International Law
Committee at the New York City Bar Association, also says that the
cross-agency coordination "reflects the fact that the decision to
introduce and develop these methods was made at a very high level."
On Wednesday, dozens of psychologists made public a joint letter to
American Psychological Association president Sharon Brehm fingering
another CIA-employed psychologist, R. Scott Shumate. Previous news
reports led the American Medical Association and the American
Psychiatric Association to ban their members from participating in
interrogations, but the issue has remained divisive within the
American Psychological Association, which has not forbidden the
practice. "We write you as psychologists concerned about the
participation of our profession in abusive interrogations of
national security detainees at Guantanamo, in Iraq and Afghanistan,
and at the so-called CIA 'black sites,'" the psychologists wrote. In
violation of APA ethics, they said, "It is now indisputable that
psychologists and psychology were directly and officially
responsible for the development and migration of abusive
interrogation techniques, techniques which the International
Committee of the Red Cross has labeled 'tantamount to torture.'"
[Ed. note: The full letter detailing the allegations of APA
complicity can be read here.]
The letter cites a previously public biographical statement on
Shumate that listed his position from April 2001 to May 2003 as "the
chief operational psychologist for the CIA's Counter Terrorism
Center." The bio also noted that Shumate "has been with several of
the key apprehended terrorists" who have been held and interrogated
by the agency since 9/11. At CTC, Shumate reported to Cofer Black,
the former head of CTC who famously told Congress in September
2002, "There was a before 9/11, and there was an after 9/11. After
9/11 the gloves come off." Shumate's bio, obtained by Salon, has
been removed from the InfowarCon 2007 conference Web site. Shumate
did not return a phone call seeking comment.
The SERE-based program undermines assertions made for years by Bush
administration officials that interrogations conducted by U.S.
personnel are safe, effective and legal. SERE training, according to
the Department of Defense inspector general's report, is
specifically designed "to replicate harsh conditions that the
service member might encounter if they are held by forces that do
not abide by the Geneva Conventions."
"The irony -- and ultimately the tragedy -- in the migration of SERE
techniques is that the program was specifically designed to protect
our soldiers from countries that violated the Geneva Conventions,"
says Brad Olson, president of the Divisions for Social Justice
within the American Psychological Association. "The result of the
reverse-engineering, however, was that by making foreign detainees
the target, it made us the country that violated the Geneva
Conventions," he says.
There are striking similarities between descriptions of SERE
training and the interrogation techniques employed by the military
and CIA since 9/11. Soldiers undergoing SERE training are subject to
forced nudity, stress positions, lengthy isolation, sleep
deprivation, sexual humiliation, exhaustion from exercise, and the
use of water to create a sensation of suffocation. "If you have ever
had a bag on your head and somebody pours water on it," one graduate
of that training program told Salon last year "it is real hard to
Many of those techniques show up in interrogation logs, human rights
reports and news articles about detainee abuse that has taken place
in Guantánamo, Afghanistan and Iraq. (The military late last year
unveiled a new interrogation manual designed to put a stop to
prisoner abuse.) An investigation released this month by the Council
of Europe, a multinational human rights agency, added extreme
sensory deprivation to the list of techniques that have been used by
the CIA. The report said that extended isolation contributed
to "enduring psychiatric and mental problems" of prisoners.
Isolation in cramped cells is also a key tenet of SERE training,
according to soldiers who have completed the training and described
it in detail to Salon. The effects of isolation are a specialty of
Jessen's, who taught a class on "coping with isolation in a hostage
environment" at a Maui seminar in late 2003, according to a
Washington Times article published then. (Defense Department
documents from the late 1990s describe Jessen as the "lead
psychologist" for the SERE program.) Mitchell also spoke at that
conference, according to the article. It described both men
as "contracted to Uncle Sam to fight terrorism."
Mitchell's name surfaced again many months later. His role in
interrogations was referenced briefly in a July 2005 New Yorker
article by Jane Mayer, which focused largely on the military's use
of SERE-based tactics at Guantánamo. The article described
Mitchell's participation in a CIA interrogation of a high-value
prisoner in March 2002 at an undisclosed location elsewhere --
presumably a secret CIA prison known as a "black site" -- where
Mitchell urged harsh techniques that would break down the prisoner's
psychological defenses, creating a feeling of "helplessness." But
the article did not confirm Mitchell was a CIA employee, and it
explored no further the connection between Mitchell's background
with SERE and interrogations being conducted by the CIA.
A call to Mitchell and Jessen's firm for comment was not returned.
The CIA would not comment on Mitchell and Jessen's work for the
agency, though the contractual relationship is not one Mitchell and
Jessen entirely concealed. They advertised their CIA credentials as
exhibitors at a 2004 conference of the American Psychological
Association in Honolulu.
In a statement to Salon, CIA spokesman George Little wrote that the
agency's interrogation program had been "implemented lawfully, with
great care and close review, producing a rich volume of intelligence
that has helped the United States and other countries disrupt
terrorist activities and save innocent lives."
Until last month, the Army had denied any use of SERE training for
prisoner interrogations. "We do not teach interrogation techniques,"
Carol Darby, chief spokeswoman for the U.S. Army Special Operations
Command at Fort Bragg, said last June when Salon asked about a
document that appeared to indicate that instructors from the SERE
school taught their methods to interrogators at Guantánamo.
But the declassified DoD inspector general's report described
initiatives by high-level military officials to incorporate SERE
concepts into interrogations. And it said that psychologists
affiliated with SERE training -- people like Mitchell and Jessen --
played a critical role. According to the inspector general, the Army
Special Operations Command's Psychological Directorate at Fort Bragg
first drafted a plan to have the military reverse-engineer SERE
training in the summer of 2002. At the same time, the commander of
Guantánamo determined that SERE tactics might be used on detainees
at the military prison. Then in September 2002, the Army Special
Operations Command and other SERE officials hosted a "SERE
psychologist conference" at Fort Bragg to brief staff from the
military's prison at Guantánamo on the use of SERE tactics.
The chief of the Army Special Operations Command's Psychological
Directorate was Col. Morgan Banks, the senior SERE psychologist, who
has been affiliated with the training for years and helped establish
the Army's first permanent training program that simulated
captivity, according to a 2003 biographical statement. Banks also
spent the winter of 2001 and 2002 at Bagram Airfield in
Afghanistan "supporting combat operations against Al Qaida and
Taliban fighters," according to one of his bios, which also said
that Banks "provides technical support and consultation to all Army
psychologists providing interrogation support."
In 2005, Banks helped draft ethical guidelines for the APA that say
a psychologist supporting an interrogation is providing "a valuable
and ethical role to assist in protecting our nation, other nations,
and innocent civilians from harm." But as Salon reported last
summer, six of the 10 psychologists who drafted that policy,
including Banks, had close ties to the military. Some psychologists
worry that the APA policy has made the organization an enabler of
torture. Those ethics guidelines "gave the APA imprimatur to any of
these techniques," says Steven Reisner, an APA member who has been
closely tracking psychologists' role in interrogations. The policy,
Reisner says, was developed by "psychologists directly involved in
Another of the six psychologists on the panel that drafted the
guidelines who had ties to the military was Shumate. His bio for
that APA task force said he worked as a "director of behavioral
science" for the Defense Department. It never mentioned that he also
worked for the CIA.