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Human Rights Watch Calls for Prosecution of Idaho-Born CIA Contractor Bruce Jessen


A year after the release of a sweeping United States Senate Intelligence Committee report on Bush-era torture practices, the international nonprofit NGO Human Rights Watch is demanding a raft of former top officials be subject to prosecution.

The 159-page report, issued Dec. 1, said the U.S. government "has an obligation under international law to prosecute torture where warranted and provide redress to victims, but it has done neither."

HRW targeted 16 government officials and contractors for "conspiracy to torture," including former President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Central Intelligence Agency Director George Tenet and Attorney General John Ashcroft. Also among the names were former CIA-contracted psychologists James Mitchell and Idaho native Bruce Jessen.

In 2007, Mitchell and Jessen were first revealed as key participants in the creation of the CIA's so-called "enhanced interrogation" program, applied to suspected terrorists at secret prisons around the world. Both former U.S. Air Force psychologists specializing in resistance to interrogation, Mitchell and Jessen allegedly "reverse engineered" the tactics into a series of methods designed to create a sense of "learned helplessness" in detainees.

The two were contracted with the CIA beginning in 2002 and operated from 2005-2009 out of a consultancy firm based in Spokane, Wash., near the Fairchild Air Force Base survival school where they had previously worked as psychologists. During that time, Mitchell and Jessen were paid $1,800 per day for their services. From 2005-2009, they pulled in upwards of $81 million of a $180 million contract with the CIA for crafting, overseeing, assessing and, in many cases, applying the interrogation methods at so-called "black sites" in Afghanistan, Poland and Thailand.

Mitchell has pushed back against the allegations contained in the nearly 600-page Senate report, which was released in December 2014, but Jessen has avoided public comment. Born and raised in the eastern Idaho farming community of Ashton, Jessen now lives in a rural area outside Spokane. From an active Mormon family, he was briefly in the spotlight in 2012, when the stake president for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Spokane appointed him bishop of a local ward. Jessen was forced to resign his position amid widespread outrage from civil liberties and human rights activists, who cited his alleged participation in harsh interrogation tactics, including waterboarding.

The HRW report follows multiple calls for prosecutions in connection with the torture program, including from the American Civil Liberties Union, which sued Mitchell and Jessen in October; the American Psychological Association, to which neither Mitchell nor Jessen belong; Amnesty International; and the United Nations special rapporteur on counter-terrorism and human rights.

Despite the uproar, U.S. officials have stated they will not pursue any investigations or legal action stemming from the Senate report.

"Rather than another reason to refight old arguments, I hope that today's report can help us leave these techniques where they belong—in the past," President Barack Obama said in a statement following the release of the report.

HRW maintains there is "sufficient evidence" to investigate not only those who launched the interrogation program but also those who later joined it—including officials involved with drafting the Department of Justice memos that gave the harsh techniques legal grounding. Beyond torture, HRW alleges other individuals should be investigated for war crimes, assault and sexual abuses.

"The failure to credibly investigate and prosecute torture committed in any territory under U.S. jurisdiction violates U.S. obligations under the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and other treaties to which the U.S. is a party," HRW wrote in the report. "Other countries and entities should open their own investigations into CIA torture and should exercise universal jurisdiction, where applicable, over U.S. nationals and others implicated in torture or other abuses."

As for Mitchell and Jessen, the report states they "should be investigated for their alleged direct participation in torture, often applied in ways beyond how it was authorized, but also for their role in the initial conspiracy to torture as well."