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The Silent Partner

An (unsuccessful) attempt to find the eastern Idaho farm boy who became a contract 'torturer'


Bruce Jessen has been called a war criminal. A torturer. An "American Mengele." The retired Air Force colonel and trained psychologist was, according to a 2014 report from the United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, an architect of the "brutal," "inherently unsustainable" and "deeply flawed" detainee interrogation program that "damaged the United States' standing in the world" in the years following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

His alleged actions involved helping design—and in many cases personally administer—methods of interrogation that groups ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union to Amnesty International and the United Nations have labeled as torture.

Those methods, according to the report, were applied in secret throughout the Central Intelligence Agency's now infamous network of "black sites" where detainees were held without charges in "dungeon"-like conditions.

Jessen was not alone. Fellow retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and psychologist James Mitchell helped design, advise, apply and assess the program—operating in a system with almost no checks and which the CIA's own attorneys admitted would require a "novel" legal defense "to avoid prosecution of U.S. officials who tortured to obtain information."

While Mitchell has publicly pushed back against the report, calling it "bullshit" in a December 2014 interview with ABC News, Jessen has avoided speaking to the media—the silent partner in a global scandal that continues to strain foreign relations; inflame already-volatile cultural, political and military situations; and threaten the United States' moral standing even after nearly 15 years of continuous war.

The contents of the almost 600 pages of the Senate report are as harrowing as they are detailed, except when it comes to the backgrounds of Jessen and Mitchell, referred to by the pseudonyms of Drs. Dunbar and Swigert, respectively.

Their true names weren't known until a 2007 Vanity Fair report, which presaged much of what would come to light in the 2014 Senate report. Eight years later, as HBO has optioned the rights for an original film based on the article, "Rorschach and Awe," Mitchell is less mysterious but Jessen remains an enigma.

His road to the secret prisons of Afghanistan, Thailand and Poland, however, began in eastern Idaho—literally, on Highway 20, in a small town at the foot of the Teton Mountains.