WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The CIA paid $80 million to a company run by two former Air Force psychologists without experience in interrogation or counter-terrorism who recommended waterboarding, slaps to the face and mock burial for prisoners the U.S. suspected of being terrorists, according to a U.S. Senate report.
The two men are referred to in the report by the pseudonyms “Dunbar” and “Swigert” but have been identified by U.S. intelligence sources as James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen. The CIA outsourced more than 80 percent of its interrogation program to the company, Mitchell Jessen & Associates of Spokane, Washington, for its work from 2005 until the termination of the arrangement in 2009. The CIA also paid the company $1 million to protect it and its employees from legal liability.
The Senate report questioned the psychologists’ qualifications and accused them of violating professional ethics as architects of a system that Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said amounted to the torture of some CIA detainees.
“Neither of the psychologists had any experience as an interrogator nor did either have specialized knowledge of al Qaeda, a background in counterterrorism, or any relevant cultural or linguistic experience,” according to the report.
During an ordeal at a secret prison in early 2003, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, captured in 2002 and suspected of masterminding the bombing of the USS Cole at Aden in 2000, was waterboarded repeatedly, forced to stand with his hands on his head for hours at a time and once, while blindfolded, was threatened with a buzzing power drill held near his head. Some CIA personnel involved in the episode concluded that Nashiri was not withholding significant information on terrorism plots.
Even after that, a psychologist present urged that Nashiri be subjected to further harsh methods to induce the “desired level of helplessless,” according to the report released on Tuesday. The report didn’t say whether that psychologist was Mitchell or Jessen.
The CIA’s chief of interrogations was so appalled when he received the proposed interrogation plan he emailed colleagues that the program was a “train wreck” waiting to happen, and that he no longer wanted to be associated with it, the report said.
“Why can’t you leave me alone?” Mitchell, who has retired to Florida, asked a Reuters reporter when contacted by telephone on Tuesday. “I can’t even confirm or deny if I was even involved. Talk to the CIA.”
He was quoted as telling London’s Guardian newspaper in April that he had nothing to apologize for, and that “I did the best that I could.” His former colleague, Jessen, could not be reached for comment.
The two psychologists were allowed to evaluate their own work, to which they gave high marks, the report said.
“The contractors provided the official evaluation of whether the detainees’ psychological state allowed for the continued use of the enhanced techniques even for some detainees they themselves were interrogating,” Feinstein said.
In her preamble to the report, Feinstein wrote that her “personal conclusion” was that some of the CIA detainees had been tortured. On the Senate floor, she said the arrangement under which the psychologists appraised their own interrogation work was a “clear conflict of interest and a violation of professional guidelines.”
Brought in by the CIA to help squeeze information from suspects after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Mitchell and Jessen drew upon their experience in a Cold-War era program that taught U.S. airmen to cope with harsh interrogation if captured.
Starting in 2002, the two devised an approach that essentially “reverse engineered” the Air Force’s Survival Evasion Resistance Escape (SERE) program.
“I’m just a guy who got asked to do something for his country by people at the highest level of government, and I did the best that I could,” Mitchell told the Guardian in the April interview.
“I don’t care what Feinstein thinks about me,” he said. “I’m retired ... I served my country and now I’m done. I did what I did for whoever I did it for, and now I’m done with that stuff.”
In October 2004, 21 months after Nashiri was last subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques, an assessment by one of the psychologists and another CIA interrogator concluded that he had provided “essentially no actionable information,” the report says.
It is a result that mirrors the report’s overall conclusions that interrogations at secret CIA prisons were ineffective.
Over a period of years, Nashiri, who has been held at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, after spending time at a series of secret CIA jails, has accused U.S. personnel of drugging or poisoning him and has also gone on hunger strike, the report said.
Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball in Washington and David Adams in Miami. Editing by John Pickering