WASHINGTON — Jim Mitchell and Bruce Jessen were military retirees and
psychologists, on the lookout for business opportunities. They found an
excellent customer in the Central Intelligence Agency, where in 2002 they became the architects of the most importantinterrogation program in the history of American counterterrorism.
They had never carried out a real interrogation, only mock sessions
in the military training they had overseen. They had no relevant
scholarship; their Ph.D. dissertations were on high blood pressure and
family therapy. They had no language skills and no expertise on Al Qaeda.
they had psychology credentials and an intimate knowledge of a brutal
treatment regimen used decades ago by Chinese Communists. For an
administration eager to get tough on those who had killed 3,000
Americans, that was enough.
So “Doc Mitchell” and “Doc Jessen,” as they had been known in the Air Force,
helped lead the United States into a wrenching conflict over torture,
terror and values that seven years later has not run its course.
Mitchell, with a sonorous Southern accent and the sometimes overbearing
confidence of a self-made man, was a former Air Force explosives expert
and a natural salesman. Dr. Jessen, raised on an Idaho potato farm,
joined his Air Force colleague to build a thriving business that made
millions of dollars selling interrogation and training services to the
Seven months after President Obama ordered the C.I.A. interrogation program closed, its fallout still commands attention. In the next few weeks, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.
is expected to decide whether to begin a criminal torture
investigation, in which the psychologists’ role is likely to come under
scrutiny. The Justice Department ethics office is expected to complete
a report on the lawyers who pronounced the methods legal. And the
C.I.A. will soon release a highly critical 2004 report on the program
by the agency’s inspector general.
Col. Steven M. Kleinman, an
Air Force interrogator and intelligence officer who knows Dr. Mitchell
and Dr. Jessen, said he thought loyalty to their country in the panicky
wake of the Sept. 11 attacks prompted their excursion into
interrogation. He said the result was a tragedy for the country, and
“I feel their primary motivation was they thought they
had skills and insights that would make the nation safer,” Colonel
Kleinman said. “But good persons in extreme circumstances can do
For the C.I.A., as well as for the gray-goateed
Dr. Mitchell, 58, and the trim, dark-haired Dr. Jessen, 60, the change
in administrations has been neck-snapping. For years, President George W. Bush
declared the interrogation program lawful and praised it for stopping
attacks. Mr. Obama, by contrast, asserted that its brutality rallied
recruits for Al Qaeda; called one of the methods, waterboarding, torture; and, in his first visit to the C.I.A., suggested that the interrogation program was among the agency’s “mistakes.”
psychologists’ subsequent fall from official grace has been as swift as
their rise in 2002. Today the offices of Mitchell Jessen and
Associates, the lucrative business they operated from a handsome
century-old building in downtown Spokane, Wash., sit empty, its C.I.A.
contracts abruptly terminated last spring.
With a possible
criminal inquiry looming, Dr. Mitchell and Dr. Jessen have retained a
well-known defense lawyer, Henry F. Schuelke III. Mr. Schuelke said
they would not comment for this article, which is based on dozens of
interviews with the doctors’ colleagues and present and former
In a brief e-mail exchange in June, Dr.
Mitchell said his nondisclosure agreement with the C.I.A. prevented him
from commenting. He suggested that his work had been mischaracterized.
around,” Dr. Mitchell wrote, “and I’m sure you will find all manner of
‘experts’ who will be willing to make up what you’d like to hear on the
spot and unrestrained by reality.”
A Career Shift
the time of the Sept. 11 attacks, Dr. Mitchell had just retired from
his last military job, as psychologist to an elite special operations
unit in North Carolina. Showing his entrepreneurial streak, he had
started a training company called Knowledge Works, which he operated
from his new home in Florida, to supplement retirement pay.
for someone with Dr. Mitchell’s background, it was evident that the
campaign against Al Qaeda would produce opportunities. He began
networking in military and intelligence circles where he had a career’s
worth of connections.
He had grown up poor in Florida, Dr.
Mitchell told friends, and joined the Air Force in 1974, seeking
adventure. Stationed in Alaska, he learned the art of disarming bombs
and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology.
J. Madigan, a psychology professor at the University of Alaska who had
worked closely with him, remembered Dr. Mitchell stopping by years
later. He had completed his doctorate at the University of South
Florida in 1986, comparing diet and exercise in controlling
hypertension, and was working for the Air Force in Spokane.
“I remember him saying they were preparing people for intense interrogations,” Dr. Madigan said.
survival training was expanded after the Korean War, when false
confessions by American prisoners led to sensational charges of
communist “brainwashing.” Military officials decided that giving
service members a taste of Chinese-style interrogation would prepare
them to withstand its agony.
Air Force survival training was
consolidated in 1966 at Fairchild Air Force Base in the parched hills
outside Spokane. The name of the training, Survival, Evasion,
Resistance, Escape, or SERE, suggests its breadth: airmen and women
learn to live off the land and avoid capture, as well as how to behave
if taken prisoner.
In the 1980s, Dr. Jessen became the SERE
psychologist at the Air Force Survival School, screening instructors
who posed as enemy interrogators at the mock prison camp and making
sure rough treatment did not go too far. He had grown up in a Mormon
community with a view of Grand Teton, earning a doctorate at Utah State
studying “family sculpting,” in which patients make physical models of
their family to portray emotional relationships.
Dr. Jessen moved
in 1988 to the top psychologist’s job at a parallel “graduate school”
of survival training, a short drive from the Air Force school. Dr.
Mitchell took his place.
The two men became part of what some
Defense Department officials called the “resistance mafia,” experts on
how to resist enemy interrogations. Both lieutenant colonels and both
married with children, they took weekend ice-climbing trips together.
many subordinates considered them brainy and capable leaders, some
fellow psychologists were more skeptical. At the annual conference of
SERE psychologists, two colleagues recalled, Dr. Mitchell offered
lengthy put-downs of presentations that did not suit him.
the Air Force school, Dr. Mitchell was known for enforcing the safety
of interrogations; it might surprise his later critics to learn that he
eliminated a tactic called “manhandling” after it produced a spate of
neck injuries, a colleague said.
At the SERE graduate school, Dr.
Jessen is remembered for an unusual job switch, from supervising
psychologist to mock enemy interrogator.
Dr. Jessen became so
aggressive in that role that colleagues intervened to rein him in,
showing him videotape of his “pretty scary” performance, another
Always, former and current SERE officials say, it is understood that the training mimics the methods of unscrupulous foes.
Mays, the first psychologist at the Air Force school, said that to make
the fake prison camp realistic, officials consulted American P.O.W.’s
who had just returned from harrowing camps in North Vietnam.
was clear that this is what we’d expect from our enemies,” said Dr.
Mays, now a clinical psychologist and lawyer in Spokane. “It was not
something I could ever imagine Americans would do.”
Start of the Program
December 2001, a small group of professors and law enforcement and
intelligence officers gathered outside Philadelphia at the home of a
prominent psychologist, Martin E. P. Seligman, to brainstorm about
Muslim extremism. Among them was Dr. Mitchell, who attended with a
C.I.A. psychologist, Kirk M. Hubbard.
During a break, Dr.
Mitchell introduced himself to Dr. Seligman and said how much he
admired the older man’s writing on “learned helplessness.” Dr. Seligman
was so struck by Dr. Mitchell’s unreserved praise, he recalled in an
interview, that he mentioned it to his wife that night. Later, he said,
he was “grieved and horrified” to learn that his work had been cited to
justify brutal interrogations.
Dr. Seligman had discovered in the
1960s that dogs that learned they could do nothing to avoid small
electric shocks would become listless and simply whine and endure the
shocks even after being given a chance to escape.
which later became an influential concept in the treatment of human
depression, was also much discussed in military survival training.
Instructors tried to stop short of producing helplessness in trainees,
since their goal was to strengthen the spirit of service members in
Dr. Mitchell, colleagues said, believed that
producing learned helplessness in a Qaeda interrogation subject might
ensure that he would comply with his captor’s demands. Many experienced
interrogators disagreed, asserting that a prisoner so demoralized would
say whatever he thought the interrogator expected.
At the C.I.A.
in December 2001, Dr. Mitchell’s theories were attracting high-level
attention. Agency officials asked him to review a Qaeda manual, seized
in England, that coached terrorist operatives to resist interrogations.
He contacted Dr. Jessen, and the two men wrote the first proposal to
turn the enemy’s brutal techniques — slaps, stress positions, sleep
deprivation, wall-slamming and waterboarding — into an American
By the start of 2002, Dr. Mitchell was
consulting with the C.I.A.’s Counterterrorist Center, whose director,
Cofer Black, and chief operating officer, Jose A. Rodriguez Jr., were
impressed by his combination of visceral toughness and psychological
jargon. One person who heard some discussions said Dr. Mitchell gave
the C.I.A. officials what they wanted to hear. In this person’s words,
Dr. Mitchell suggested that interrogations required “a comparable level
of fear and brutality to flying planes into buildings.”
By the end of March, when agency operatives captured Abu Zubaydah,
initially described as Al Qaeda’s No. 3, the Mitchell-Jessen
interrogation plan was ready. At a secret C.I.A. jail in Thailand, as
reported in prior news accounts, two F.B.I agents used conventional
rapport-building methods to draw vital information from Mr. Zubaydah.
Then the C.I.A. team, including Dr. Mitchell, arrived.
backing of agency headquarters, Dr. Mitchell ordered Mr. Zubaydah
stripped, exposed to cold and blasted with rock music to prevent sleep.
Not only the F.B.I.
agents but also C.I.A. officers at the scene were uneasy about the
harsh treatment. Among those questioning the use of physical pressure,
according to one official present, were the Thailand station chief, the
officer overseeing the jail, a top interrogator and a top agency
Whether they protested to C.I.A. bosses is
uncertain, because the voluminous message traffic between headquarters
and the Thailand site remains classified. One witness said he believed
that “revisionism” in light of the torture controversy had prompted
some participants to exaggerate their objections.
As the weeks
passed, the senior agency psychologist departed, followed by one F.B.I.
agent and then the other. Dr. Mitchell began directing the questioning
and occasionally speaking directly to Mr. Zubaydah, one official said.
late July 2002, Dr. Jessen joined his partner in Thailand. On Aug. 1,
the Justice Department completed a formal legal opinion authorizing the
SERE methods, and the psychologists turned up the pressure. Over about
two weeks, Mr. Zubaydah was confined in a box, slammed into the wall
and waterboarded 83 times.
The brutal treatment stopped only
after Dr. Mitchell and Dr. Jessen themselves decided that Mr. Zubaydah
had no more information to give up. Higher-ups from headquarters
arrived and watched one more waterboarding before agreeing that the
treatment could stop, according to a Justice Department legal opinion.
Zubaydah case gave reason to question the Mitchell-Jessen plan: the
prisoner had given up his most valuable information without coercion.
But top C.I.A. officials made no changes, and the methods would be used on at least 27 more prisoners, including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who was waterboarded 183 times.
business plans of Dr. Mitchell and Dr. Jessen, meanwhile, were working
out beautifully. They were paid $1,000 to $2,000 a day apiece, one
official said. They had permanent desks in the Counterterrorist Center,
and could now claim genuine experience in interrogating high-level
Dr. Mitchell could keep working outside the
C.I.A. as well. At the Ritz-Carlton in Maui in October 2003, he was
featured at a high-priced seminar for corporations on how to behave if
kidnapped. He created new companies, called Wizard Shop, later renamed
Mind Science, and What If. His first company, Knowledge Works, was
certified by the American Psychological Association in 2004 as a
sponsor of continuing professional education. (A.P.A. dropped the
certification last year.)
In 2005, the psychologists formed
Mitchell Jessen and Associates, with offices in Spokane and Virginia
and five additional shareholders, four of them from the military’s SERE
program. By 2007, the company employed about 60 people, some with
impressive résumés, including Deuce Martinez, a lead C.I.A.
interrogator of Mr. Mohammed; Roger L. Aldrich, a legendary military
survival trainer; and Karen Gardner, a senior training official at the
The company’s C.I.A. contracts are classified,
but their total was well into the millions of dollars. In 2007 in a
suburb of Tampa, Fla., Dr. Mitchell built a house with a swimming pool,
now valued at $800,000.
The psychologists’ influence remained strong under four C.I.A. directors. In 2006, in fact, when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
and her legal adviser, John B. Bellinger III, pushed back against the
C.I.A.’s secret detention program and its methods, the director at the
time, Michael V. Hayden,
asked Dr. Mitchell and Dr. Jessen to brief State Department officials
and persuade them to drop their objections. They were unsuccessful.
By then, the national debate over torture had begun, and it would undo the psychologists’ business.
In a statement to employees on April 9, Leon E. Panetta,
President Obama’s C.I.A. director, announced the “decommissioning” of
the agency’s secret jails and repeated a pledge not to use coercion.
And there was another item: “No C.I.A. contractors will conduct
Agency officials terminated the contracts for
Mitchell Jessen and Associates, and the psychologists’ lucrative
seven-year ride was over. Within days, the company had vacated its
Spokane offices. The phones were disconnected, and at neighboring
businesses, no one knew of a forwarding address.