Psychologists Told CIA Waterboarding Was Safe

Photo: Psychologists Bruce Jessen and Jim Mitchell shaped the CIAs interrogation program of al Qaeda detainees

There is new scrutiny into the role of two psychologists who made an estimated $1,000 a day to oversee and advise the CIA's interrogation of captured terrorists.

Both men, doctors Jim Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, assured the CIA that their methods could 'break' a terrorist and would be safe, according to two former high-ranking CIA officials and a collection of recently declassified Bush administration memos.

The major problem, according to those who knew the two retired military psychologists, was that neither Mitchell nor Jessen had ever conducted a real interrogation, or been involved in an intelligence operation.

When they became involved in interrogations for the CIA, "that was their first step into the world of intelligence," says Air Force Colonel Steve Kleinman, a career military interrogator and former colleague of both Dr. Mitchell and Dr. Jessen. "That was their very first experience with it. Everything else was role-play."

Kleinman and two other former colleagues tell ABC News that neither Mitchell nor Jessen had any experience with al Qaeda, Islamic extremists or battlefield interrogations.

And yet, more than anyone else, Mitchell and Jessen, long-time friends and colleagues, shaped the CIA's interrogation program, according to the two former CIA officials.

The debate over the CIA's so called "Enhanced Interrogation Techniques" has picked up in recent weeks after the Obama administration released a set of legal memos written during the Bush presidency, and a Senate committee report that details the origins of interrogation policy during the Bush administration.

"If the psychologists told the CIA or the Office of Legal Counsel that these methods wouldn't amount to torture as a matter of science, I think those psychologists were essentially aiding in torture," says Jameel Jaffer, who directed the American Civil Liberties Union's fight to secure the memos' release.

In addition to questions of legality investigations have begun in Congress into the effectiveness of Mitchell and Jessen's program.

According to Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), chair of the Armed Services Committee, whose report identifies Mitchell and Jessen as important to the creation of interrogation policies, little could have been gained by the harsh methods.

"These tactics are more likely to produce unreliable evidence than they are to produce any reliable information," he told ABC News. "The use of these tactics tends to increase resistance on the part of the detainee to cooperating with us. So they have the exact opposite effect of what [the U.S. would] want."

Declassified Memos Contradict 2007 ABC News Interview with John Kiriakou

The memos also revealed that waterboarding was used "with far greater frequency that initially indicated," according to an excerpt from a report by the CIA Inspector General. Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded at least 83 times and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed 183 times, according to the memos.

The new figures sharply contradict an interview with former CIA intelligence officer John Kiriakou who told ABC News in December, 2007 that Zubaydah had only been waterboarded once and talked freely afterwards.

Kiriakou, who led the capture of Zubaydah and was the first from inside the CIA to publicly confirm the use of waterboarding, now says he, too, was unaware of the many times Zubaydah was waterboarded.

Kiriakou told ABC News, "When I spoke to ABC News in December 2007 I was aware of Abu Zubaydah being waterboarded on one occasion. It was after this one occasion that he revealed information related to a planned terrorist attack. As I said in the original interview, my information was second-hand. I never participated in the use of enhanced techniques on Abu Zubaydah or on any other prisoner, nor did I witness the use of such techniques."

As to the private contractors used by the CIA to create and oversee the 10-step brutal interrogation program, two former high-ranking CIA officials confirm to ABC News that Mitchell and Jessen were the architects of the CIA's interrogation program, and were hired as independent contractors to administer and direct the so-called "high value detainee" interrogation. Based on their suggestions and ideas, submitted by the CIA, the Justice Department approved a set of 10 techniques in August, 2002, that would be used on Abu Zubaydah and subsequent al Qaeda captures.

Both are said to have been present in multiple CIA secret prisons, sources tell ABC News, regulating everything from sleep deprivation and stress positions to forced nudity and placing insects in a "confinement box." Sources tell ABC News that the pair traveled the world for the CIA. For their services, they told friends that they were paid $1,000 per day overseas, tax-free, plus expenses.

Mitchell recently built a dream home in Florida, purchased a Lexus and BMW. And as early as 2002, Mitchell and Jessen opened a consulting business that employed as many as 60 people.

Neither would answer questions posed by ABC News, saying they were upholding confidentiality agreements with the U.S. government.

Click here to see Jessen refusing to talk to ABC News.

Click here to see Mitchell refusing to talk to ABC News.

Colleagues of Mitchell and Jessen Raised Red Flags

Although Mitchell and Jessen had been previously identified as being CIA contractors who influenced the CIA's controversial interrogation techniques, the recently released government documents reveal how deeply the pair were involved in developing an interrogation program based on their expertise as psychologists in classified military training regimen intended to help U.S. soldiers and pilots resist coercion and torture in the event of capture, called SERE.

The classified program, which stands for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape, was a legacy of the Cold War, when U.S. soldiers captured by Communist regimes were brutalized and used as propaganda trophies.

SERE was also designed to cope with the tactics of countries and governments that did not abide by the Geneva Convention, which prohibits torture and governs the rules of war.

An obscure Department of Defense unit, called the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA), for which Dr. Jessen served as a psychological expert and trainer, is assigned the task of overseeing all SERE training giving to the various special forces in the U.S. military. Dr. Mitchell, though assigned to the special operations unit of the Air Force, worked closely with Dr. Jessen for nearly two decades at Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane, WA.

The Senate Armed Services Committee recently released a study of interrogation policies in the military after 9/11. The report describes the influence Dr. Jessen had as chief psychologist of JPRA, and his colleague, Dr. Mitchell on the role of SERE tactics in shaping interrogation policy.

According to the report, Mitchell and Jessen's SERE expertise, "lies in training U.S. military personnel who are at risk for capture, how to respond and resist interrogations (a defensive mission), not in how to conduct interrogations (an offensive mission)."

Despite a flurry of red flags from Mitchell and Jessen's colleagues, senior Pentagon and CIA officials agreed to adopt their program.

Col. Kleinman says Mitchell and Jessen were way out their league advocating and creating an interrogation model.

"What they failed to understand was they were stepping out of their area of expertise," he says. "There was nobody, apparently, at the decision-making level that had enough expertise and experience in the area of interrogation to quickly see the disconnect between the SERE model, a resistance model, and an actual interrogation for intelligence purposes."

CIA: Interrogation Program Guided by Legal Opinions from DOJ

Now, investigators will look to see if the harsh techniques worked and the ACLU and Jameel Jaffer are interested in determining if Mitchell and Jessen misled the U.S. government about the intensity of their interrogation program. Jaffer points out that according to a CIA Inspector General report, the "expertise of the SERE psychologists/interrogators on the waterboard was probably misrepresented." As a result, the IG report continued, there is no reason to believe that the technique was effective, or "medically safe."

So how did it happen that the CIA and the U.S. government came to rely so heavily on two inexperienced interrogators for the nations more important interrogations?

Kleinman is dumbfounded. "The best I can come up with was the people doing the hiring did not even understand the challenge in front of them."

The CIA told ABC News that the "agency's terrorist interrogation program was guided by legal opinions from the Department of Justice."

Matthew Cole is a freelance national security reporter. His book, about the CIA rendition program, will be published later this year by Simon & Schuster.

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