Jim Mitchell paddles among the alligators on Florida’s Myakka River to relax. “I like the wilderness a lot,” he told one interviewer. “They’re more scared of me than I am of them.”
More than a decade has passed since Dr James Mitchell, together with Dr Bruce Jessen, began a programme of “enhanced” interrogation of suspected al-Qaeda militants that this week drew international condemnation. As is now well-documented, the private company set up by the doctors, Mitchell Jessen and Associates, held a contract with the CIA which netted them $81m (£51.5m) between 2002 and 2009.
It was based at 108 Washington Street, Spokane, in Washington state, a five-storey colonial building with a brick façade – one of the oldest in the city. The firm had two floors at the top of the building, which were bug-proofed and equipped with high security doors. Today, another company answers the phone when called: Mitchell Jessen has ceased trading.
But for a few years when George W Bush resided in the White House, the doctors cashed in on his war on terror. This week, the doctors became known under different names – Grayson Swigert and Hammond Dunbar – as the architects of the CIA worldwide programme of torture. At the Fairchild Air Force base on the outskirts of Spokane, the doctors had worked on programmes to train Special Forces to cope with the type of interrogation they might face if captured. The Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (Sere) school still prepares recruits to “return with honour from any type of survival situation”.
CIA torture report: Who knew what?
CIA torture report: Who knew what?
1/6 GEORGE W BUSH
FORMER US PRESIDENT President Bush has stated in his autobiography that he discussed the programme, including the use of enhanced techniques, with then CIA director George Tenet in 2002, prior to application of the techniques on Abu Zubaydah, and personally approved them. A memoir by the former Acting CIA General Counsel John Rizzo disputes this.
2/6 JOHN BRENNAN
FORMER DEPUTY DIRECTOR AND NOW DIRECTOR, CIA Among those who were sent an update on 26 July 2002, in which CIA officers were said to be involved in “sound disorientation techniques,” “sense of time deprivation,” limited light, cold temperatures”, and sleep deprivation. The plan was circulated to senior CIA officers.
3/6 CONDOLEEZZA RICE
FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER On 31 July, 2002, she said that, in balancing the application of the CIA’s interrogation techniques against the possible loss of American lives, she would not object to the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques if the Attorney General determined them to be legal.
4/6 GEORGE J TENET
FORMER DIRECTOR OF CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE, CIA In late January 2003, in response to the death of CIA detainee Gul Rahman and the use of a gun and a drill in the CIA interrogations, DCI Tenet signed the first formal interrogation and confinement guidelines for the programme.
5/6 DONALD RUMSFELD
FORMER SECRETARY OF DEFENCE Donald Rumsfeld was made aware of the CIA interrogation programme prior to recertification of the covert action for the first time in a 25-minute briefing on 16 September, 2003. It was Condoleezza Rice who ordered his briefing.
6/6 COLIN POWELL
FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE A CIA email dated 31 July, 2003 states: “The [White House] is extremely concerned [Secretary of State] Powell would blow his stack if he were to be briefed on what’s been going on.” He was formally briefed for the first time on 16 September that year.
Honour, however, was far from what resulted from the doctors’ time at Sere. “Doc Mitchell” and “Doc Jessen” as they are reported to have been known in the Air Force, knew that the survival techniques they learned at Sere could be applied, more lucratively, in a different context. If they could teach US forces not to talk, they could force suspects rendered to CIA prisons around the world, to talk.
Dr Mitchell is today living in Land O’Lakes, a housing complex near Orlando, Florida. Described in 2009 as having the “sometime overbearing confidence of a self-made man”, Dr Mitchell was a natural salesman.
According to the Senate investigation, the pair developed theories of “learned helplessness”, putting them into practice from 2002 onwards. Neither of the men had any experience in military interrogation, neither knew anything of al-Qaeda – neither had “relevant cultural or linguistic expertise”.
By early 2002, the men had begun work at the CIA, proposing to use techniques of sleep deprivation, waterboarding and stress position to interrogate America’s growing list of enemies. Since it emerged they were the doctors behind the programme, both have insisted they are unable to comment as they are bound by a non-disclosure agreement they signed with the CIA.
But in a rambling interview with The Independent by telephone from Florida yesterday, Dr Mitchell described the Senate investigation and its findings as a “load of hooey”. He admitted being involved in “some classified programmes” but claimed the Senate investigation had been biased.
“They had an agenda, the Senate Democrats have an agenda and it’s clear to any American that reads [it] that report is selectively produced in a way to produce outrage in the reader,” he said. “The choice of adverbs, the choice of verbs, the way the sentences are structured, the way the paragraphs are put together, all of that stuff is written either deliberately, or, well it has to be written deliberately, or to produce outrage.”
He added: “And if you want to know the truth, probably – I mean this is just me as a consumer, right, this is not me as the caricature that you know people have out there – the truth is somewhere in the middle of all these reports.”
In 2007, two years before cancelling their contract with the doctors, the CIA provided what it described as a “multi-year indemnification agreement to protect the company and its employees from legal liability arising out of the programme”.
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According to the Senate report, while with the CIA, the doctors’ programme was not entirely popular. One head of CIA interrogations knew problems loomed. “This is a train wreak [sic] waiting to happen and I intend to get the hell off the train before it happens,” he wrote, before retiring due to his “serious reservations” about the torture in 2003. Another CIA officer said no “professional in the field would credit” the doctors’ judgments “as psychologists assessing the subjects”. They were both accused of “arrogance and narcissism”.
In October 2012, Dr Jessen, about whom much less in known, was appointed as a new spiritual leader of the Mormon church in Spokane’s South Hill district. The Spokesman Review reported that Spokane State church head James Lee made Dr Jessen a bishop, approved by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints hierarchy in Salt Lake City. According to reports, Dr Jessen resigned within a week.
A spokesman for the church said: "Bruce Jessen was released from his calling as a volunteer congregational leader (bishop) in Washington shortly after being named to that position. This was due to concerns expressed about his past work related to interrogation techniques. Local leaders met with Jessen, and together determined that it would be difficult for him to serve as an effective leader in that position."
Finishing his conversation yesterday, Dr Mitchell had another thought. “Look, I don’t want to mislead you, and I would be hypocritical if I told you that I don’t have a problem with killing terrorists. But killing children in drone strikes is much more a stain.”