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A day in court for victims of CIA torture

2016 June 15

CIA torture victims finally have their day in
court, but Gul Rahmann didn’t survive to see it…


I first started writing about renegade psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, and the refusal of the American Psychological Association to censure them for their involvement in torture, Suleiman Salimquite a few years ago (see links at the end of this post.) I eventually burned out on the issue, since it seemed that neither the psychology profession, or the rest of the country for that matter, were interested in confronting the issue of U.S. complicity in torture. But maybe things have changed.

Mitchell and Jessen have so far escaped criminal prosecution for designing and helping to carry out the CIA’s torture program, but will now at least have to face a civil lawsuit (Salim v. Mitchell) brought by three of the program’s victims. The American Civil Liberties Union is representing Suleiman Abdullah Salim (see his video interview below) and Mohamed Ahmed Ben Soud in the action, as well as the estate and family of Gul Rahman.

Rahman himself died – he essentially froze to death under CIA torture in 2002, “having been stripped naked from the waist down and shackled in a cell in which the temperature dipped to approximately 36 degrees Fahrenheit.”

Amy Goodman recently interviewed ACLU attorney Dror Ladin about the case, along with former intelligence officer Steven Kleinman, who had known Mitchell and Jessen from SERE training. SERE stands for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape, and was a program developed to train U.S. military to resist torture in the event they were captured and interrogated. Mitchell and Jessen essentially “reverse engineered” what they had learned from SERE to craft tortures to be used on prisoners of the U.S. Despite the pretense that these techniques were meant to extract critical information, they were continued long after there was any real pretense that there was information to obtain.

According to Jenna McLaughlin’s column in The Intercept last week, Federal judge Justin L. Quackenbush has refused the two psychologists’ request to throw out the suit, calling the case made by the plaintiffs “thorough, to say the least.” He noted that the suit alleges “not only aiding and abetting, but participation and complicity in the administration of this enhanced interrogation program.”

ACLU staff aGTMO-new4ttorney Steven Watt called the judge’s ruling unprecedented. “This is the first step toward accountability,” he told The Intercept, pointing out that in past lawsuits seeking accountability for U.S. torture, “the government has invoked its special state-secrets privileges to purportedly protect national security.”

[Jane Mayer’s short, 2010, New Yorker piece about the case is worth reading as a reminder of just how tightly information about the CIA torture program – including the participation of Mitchell and Jessen – has been controlled until very recently. See also this piece by Adam Goldman & Kathy Gannon.]


“There were some abuses that occurred…”

Jessica Schulberg, in Huffington Post, notes that although the pair’s attorneys are arguing that they “did not create or establish the CIA enhanced interrogation program,” the promo material for Mitchell’s forthcoming book calls him “the creator of the CIA’s controversial Enhanced Interrogation Program,” offering “a dramatic firsthand account of the design implementation, flaws and aftermath of the program.”

While Mitchell and Jessen’s lawyers argued that their clients should not be held responsible, claiming that they did not personally participate in the victims’ capture, imprisonment, or interrogation, ACLU attorney Dror Ladin pointed out that not only did the two design and supervise the torture program, but they were well paid to do so. The pair’s company reportedly made in the vicinity of $81 million dollars under their CIA contract, but Mitchell argues that the money “was not income provided to me…That was a multi-year commercial contract that was provided to a company [Mitchell Jessen & Associates] that employed many people… I wasn’t living hand to mouth, but it wasn’t $81 million.” However, he reportedly earned “as much as $1,800 a day.” Whatever they were paid, given the fact that their “expertise” led to hardly any “actionable intelligence,” they were overpaid.

JamesMitchellMitchell and Jessen initially developed and taught “Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape,” or SERE techniques for training U.S. troops to withstand brutal interrogation in the event of capture, but eventually found it more profitable to go over to the “dark side,” using their expertise to advise U.S. interrogators on the use of torture techniques against Afghan and Iraqi detainees. The documentary film, Doctors of the Dark Side, dramatizes some of the techniques used at Abu Ghraib and GITMO under the guidance of Mitchell and Jessen (trailer available on the film’s website.)

In this context, it’s interesting to take a look at some of Mitchell’s prior statements, for example from this 2014 interview with Vice News: “The whole point of the waterboard was to induce fear and panic…you have to start the session with the waterboarding, but the questioning happens the next time you come in the room…The closer you get to it the next time, the more you struggle to get out of it and find an escape.” Mitchell acknowledges that “there were some abuses that occurred.” (NOTE: you can watch 25 minutes of Vice’s interview with Mitchell at the end of this post.)

GTMO-new4As Huffington Post reporter, Jessica Schulberg, noted recently, attorneys for Mitchell and Jessen argue that the two psychologists (the autocorrect in my aging brain keeps wanting to type ‘psychopaths’) “did not create or establish the CIA enhanced interrogation program.” Yet pre-publication promos for a new book by Mitchell call him the program’s “creator,” and brag that the book offers “a dramatic firsthand account of the program’s design and implementation.”

Mitchell’s forthcoming opus is entitled Enhanced Interrogation: Inside the Minds and Motives of the Islamic Terrorists Trying to Destroy America – ironic since, as we now know, very few of the prisoners interrogated and tortured were in fact terrorists, or even combatants. Schulberg speculates that the ACLU might demand a copy of the book as part of pre-trial discovery, since it would no doubt give us a revealing look “inside the minds and motives” of Mitchell and Jessen themselves. As of May 2nd, however, the publisher told Huffington Post that the book’s release date has been postponed. They “declined to provide a future publication date.” Surprise…

Schulberg also notes that, in addition to their roughly $81 million CIA contract, the agency also gave the two psychologists “a multimillion-dollar indemnity deal covering potential legal fees,” which should substantially cushion the pain should they end up losing in court.

NOTE: At the end of this post I’ve included Vice News’ extended (25 minute) interview with Mitchell, in which he attempts to justify his work for the CIA. 


American Psychological Association: Pay Any Price?

Mitchell (though not Jessen) belonged to the American Psychological Association, the professional group representing most psychologists in the United States. Roy Eidelson is also an APA member, but a critic of the organization’s positions condoning torture. He is one of the founders of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology. Eidelson has written extensively and persuasively about the APA’s complicity in the abuses committed at Abu Ghraib, Guantánmo, and elsewhere, and its failure to discipline members involved in interrogations that included torture. Many of the allegations he and others have made against the organization over the years were definitively confirmed in 2014 when, as he and colleague Trudy Bond write, “the publication ofRisen2 James Risen’s, Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless Warbased on previously unavailable sources, put the American Psychological Association on the hot seat. The Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter alleged that, after 9/11, the APA’s leadership colluded with the Bush administration to craft ethics policies permitting psychologists to participate in coercive and abusive ‘war on terror’ detention and interrogation operations.”

“By the end of April,” Eidelson and Bond note, “the heat under the APA was turned up another notch by the release and detailed analysis of several previously confidential emails obtained by Risen…Several emails involving one individual in particular – psychologist Kirk Hubbard – go a long way toward undermining the APA’s indignant protestations of innocence.”

“In 2003, Hubbard was a chief officer at the Operational Assessment Division of the CIA. In late 2001, he had introduced psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen to the CIA. Shortly thereafter, Mitchell and Jessen reportedly went to work devising and administering the CIA’s brutal black site detainee torture regime… In 2005, Hubbard left the CIA to take a job consulting for his colleagues at Mitchell Jessen & Associates…After he resigned from the APA in 2006, Hubbard publicly acknowledged that he strongly supported the abusive “enhanced interrogation techniques” deemed lawful by the Bush administration.”


Doing Special Things to Special People

Eidelson and Bond go on: “For most of us, this is probably not the kind of profile that would instill confidence when looking for someone to provide guidance about psychological ethics. But a review of the newly released emails shows that the APA considered Hubbard – with his connections to the CIA and to Mitchell and Jessen – to be a highly valued adviser.

GTMO-new6“Following a July 2003 invitation-only science of deception” workshop hosted by the APA and funded by the CIA, APA science policy director Geoff Mumford wanted feedback from the participants. Hubbard wrote to Mumford to say, ‘You won’t get any feedback from Mitchell or Jessen. They are doing special things to special people in special places, and generally are not available.”

Kevin Cullen is a Boston Globe columnist. He was part of the “Spotlight” team that won a Pulitzer Prize for their investigation of sexual predation by Catholic priests. Late in 2014 he interviewed former CIA agent Glenn Carle. Carle was aggressive, Cullen wrote, “He didn’t play patty-cake, but neither did he torture…He, like most CIA interrogators, knows that beyond being illegal and immoral, torture doesn’t work…Carle says James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen…were quacks, pushing unproven theories.”

Everybody [in the CIA] knew these guys were frauds. They had never done intelligence work. They had never done interrogations…Our government paid them $81 million and they gave the agency the cover the White House thought it needed.

A fish rots from the head down. Some people say we were winging it. The agency [CIA] does not wing it. You cannot even sneeze in the field without authorization. The authorization for this came from the White House. None of this would have happened had not an infinitesimally small number of neo-cons decided they had to be tough guys after 9/11.

“Carle grew ill,” Cullen says, “when he saw Dick Cheney…go on TV and dismiss the Senate report on torture while almost boasting he hadn’t even read it…Like other career CIA officers, Carle points to Cheney as epitomizing what went wrong:”



People can be Disappeared. So can the Truth…

While Mitchell and Jessen are of course free to publish their version of events, there’s a growing risk that the actual facts might be “disappeared.”  Adam Klasfeld’s recent Courthouse News Service report warned that “Less than two years after the release of the Senate ‘torture report, ’the National Archives has alarmed dozens of human-rights and press advocates by refusing to call the report a ‘federal record’ requiring preservation.

GTMO-new3“The Constitution Project and 30 other human-rights and media organizations said that they were “disturbed” by reports from two senators over the fate of the document. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released a heavily redacted summary of its report on the CIA’s rendition, detention and interrogation (RDI) program in late 2014, but the full, 6,700-page study remains entirely classified…As a result, even President Barack Obama’s executive branch cannot read the full report, and the National Archives and Records Administration [NARA]has stonewalled questions about whether it qualifies as a federal record…”In a four-page letter, the organizations reminded Ferriero that the CIA has destroyed “crucial video records of the torture program” more than a decade ago, “without NARA’s knowledge or authorization.”




Doing Harm: Health Professionals’ Central Role in the CIA Torture Program, Physicians for Human Rights, 2014.

Emails Reveal American Psychological Association’s Role in CIA Torture,, 2015.

Out of the Darkness: How two psychologists teamed up with the CIA to devise a torture program and experiment on human beings, American Civil Liberties Association


Psychologists and Torture 7/14/2010 – The Center for Justice & Accountability, Harvard’s Human Rights Clinic & Northwestern University’s Justice Center call for action, but the APA – not so much.

A Soldier who Refused to Torture 9/17/2010 – a young trooper commits suicide after being disciplined for refusing to participate in interrogations in Iraq; the Army describes her death as being from a “non-hostile weapons discharge.”

Taking Action: When Healers Harm 6/20/2011 – a campaign by the Center for Constitutional Rights “to hold physicians and other health professionals accountable for participation in ‘enhanced interrogation.”

Denied Re-enlistment for Speaking Out 9/18/2011 – a soldier forced to resign from the Army Reserve, without pension, after speaking out about his experiences at Guantánamo.

Can Torture Remain Secret in a Democracy? 10/27/2014 – controversy over the Obama administration’s decision not to release the Abu Ghraib and Bagram torture photos.

The Ongoing Case of the Guantánamo Nurse 9/18/2015 – a navy nurse loses his security clearance and may lose his pension after refusing to force-feed prisoners.

What’s a War Crime? Who Decides? 3/6/2016 – The former commander of the U.S. prison at Guantánamo refuses a subpoena to testify on the torture of two French citizens – and other news from GITMO.


FOOTNOTE: I have been for many years a board member of the Ignacio-Martín Baró Fund for Mental Health & Human Rights, most of whose founders are psychologists (though I am not – I am primarily a filmmaker and writer.) The Fund is named in honor of one of the six Jesuit priests murdered by U.S. trained Salvadoran troops in 1989. For at least ten years the Fund and its supporters have confronted the American Psychological Association’s tacit approval of the involvement of psychologists in torture and other cruel and unusual treatment in U.S. detention facilities. As a recent MBF statement noted: “Finally the Martín-Baró Fund and other grassroots groups can declare at least partial victory. Last year, a membership referendum campaign led by activists both within and outside the American Psychological Association resulted in a new, clear policy barring psychologists from working in U.S. detention centers that violate the Constitution or international law unless they are working directly for the detainees themselves or for third-party human rights groups representing the interests of detainees”


VICE interview with James Mitchell…



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