Torture on Trial

CIA interrogators James Mitchell and Idaho-born Bruce Jessen sued by ACLU


A pair of former Air Force psychologists who engineered the United States' "enhanced interrogation" program are being sued.

The suit, filed Oct. 13 by the American Civil Liberties Union, is aimed at Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell, who were contracted by the Central Intelligence Agency in the early 2000s to devise an interrogation system that has been labeled "torture" by organizations ranging from the Amnesty International to the United Nations.

The ACLU filed the suit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington on behalf of three men who were detained and subjected to harsh treatment: Suleiman Abdullah Salim and Mohamed Ahmed Ben Soud, and Gul Rahman, the latter who died following his time spent in the CIA's secret prisons.

"They are three of 119 victims and survivors of the CIA program named in the Senate torture report," the ACLU stated in an announcement of its lawsuit. "All three were experimented on and tortured in accordance with Mitchell and Jessen's specifications. All were subjected to severe physical and psychological abuse including prolonged sleep deprivation and nudity, starvation, beating, water dousing, and extreme forms of sensory deprivation—methodically administered with the aim of psychologically breaking their will."

According to the ACLU, Jessen and Mitchell are being sued under the Alien Tort Statute, which covers "torture; cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment; non-consensual human experimentation; and war crimes."

Jessen, an Idaho native, grew up in the eastern Idaho community of Ashton, where his family was prominent in the local Mormon church. Jessen attended then-Ricks College in Rexburg and went on to earn degrees in psychology at Utah State University.

While serving in the Air Force, Jessen and Mitchell were stationed at the Fairchild Air Force Base survival school in Spokane, Wash., where they were introduced to many of the interrogation practices that would later be used in the CIA's so-called "black sites"—specifically, "learned helplessness," in which a detainee's will to resist was broken in many cases, according to memos detailed in a report on the interrogation program released by the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in December 2014, to learn what they don't know, rather than gather useful intelligence.

"Our goal was to reach the stage where we have broken any will or ability of subject to resist or deny providing us information (intelligence) to which we had access," Jessen and Mitchell wrote in a CIA cable. "We additionally sought to bring subject to the point that we confidently assess that he does not/not [sic] possess undisclosed threat information, or intelligence that could prevent a terrorist event."

Retired colonels, the pair traveled to secret CIA sites throughout the world, advising, assessing and often participating in interrogations of suspected terrorists.

Jessen's dual role as a practitioner and adjudicator of interrogation methods ran afoul of even some CIA officials, with the chief of interrogations going so far as to draft a memo to headquarters calling it a "conflict of responsibility" and stating "we have a problem with [Jessen] conducting both roles simultaneously."

Beginning in 2002, Jessen and Mitchell were paid a reported $1,800 per day for their services. In 2005, they formed a consulting company in Spokane called Mitchell, Jessen and Associates. With all options exercised, the contract was worth upwards of $180 million in 2006. Ultimately, the company was paid $81 million between 2005 and 2009.

Mitchell currently lives in Florida and has given several interviews in which he defends the Bush era interrogation methods, while Jessen, who lives outside Spokane, has kept a much lower profile.

Calls to his Spokane number went unanswered earlier this year. When approached at his home by a reporter from the Spokane-based Pacific Northwest Inlander in December 2014, Jessen said the Senate report contained "distortions."

While the U.S. Senate voted in June to officially ban torture—with Idaho Sens. Crapo and Risch voting "nay"—the Senate report reveals the CIA began working on preemptive legal protections for its interrogation program as early as 2002.

The agency drafted a letter to then-U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft asking for "a formal declination of prosecution, in advance, for any employees of the United States, as well as any other personnel acting on behalf of the United States, who may employ methods ... that otherwise might subject those individuals to prosecution."

While the report notes there are no records indicating whether the letter was ever actually sent to the attorney general, the U.S. Justice Department and President Barack Obama have consistently declined to prosecute anyone found to have been involved in the so-called torture program.