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.
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.”
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