ACLU Sues Psychologists Who Designed Torture Tactics

By James Bradshaw, Senior Editor
November 11, 2015 - Last updated: January 18, 2016

Prison-SchizophreniaThe American Civil Liberties Union filed suit Oct. 13 against two psychologists who developed the “enhanced interrogation” techniques for the CIA that resulted in torture of prisoners at terrorist detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and some “black” CIA sites.

In 2005, psychologists James Mitchell, Ph.D., and John “Bruce” Jessen, Ph.D., both former Air Force officers, formed the company Mitchell Jessen and Associates that ultimately received $81 million in CIA contracts.

The ACLU is suing on behalf of three detainees – Gul Rahman, Suleiman Abdullah Salim and Mohamed Ahmed Ben Soud – that were interrogated using the techniques developed by Mitchell and Jessen. None of the three was ever charged with any offense.

Mitchell and Jessen developed 20 intense interrogation tactics, including waterboarding and sleep deprivation, by “reverse engineering” the military SERE program (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) designed to train U.S. service members how to withstand enemy interrogation.

Mitchell had succeeded Jessen as chief of psychology at an Air Force survival school in Spokane, Wash., in the late 1980s when Jessen moved on to an advanced survival training program. Mitchell’s duties included supervising trainers for the SERE program. The ACLU website quotes Steven Watt, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Human Rights Program, as saying, “Mitchell and Jessen conspired with the CIA to torture these three men and many others.…Psychology is a healing profession, but Mitchell and Jessen violated the ethical code of ‘do no harm’ in some of the most abhorrent ways imaginable.”

Mitchell and Jessen both still reside in the state of Washington, and the suit was filed in a federal court there under the Alien Tort Statute, which allows federal lawsuits for gross human rights violations.

The revelation more than a decade ago that psychologists were involved in the torture of detainees created riffs in the American Psychological Association (APA) that are still far from healed.

While other organizations, such as the American Psychiatric Association, banned members from working at the detention facilities after the torture tactics became known in 2007, the APA contended ethical psychologists were needed at such sites to oversee reforms. APA officials said they could not cite Mitchell and Jessen for ethics violations because they were not APA members.

Critics among the membership pushed for a total ban on working at such facilities and accused APA leadership of glossing over psychologists’ involvement.

Finally, in November of last year, Chicago lawyer David H. Hoffman was commissioned by the APA to do an independent investigation and reveal relevant facts “without regard to whether the evidence or conclusions may be deemed favorable or unfavorable to APA.”
Hoffman released his report in July, and it included many conclusions unfavorable to APA’s leadership in the post-9/11 years.

The report said Mitchell and Jessen were no longer APA members but the APA ethics staff had bungled actions that could have been taken earlier when they were members. The circumstances described depicted error and incompetence more than a cover-up effort and apparently stemmed from decisions years earlier to reshape APA’s role in ethics disputes as more educational and less punitive.

The Hoffman Report also contended that the chief reason APA issued no ban on members working at the detention sites was that top APA officers worked with Department of Defense officials to make certain no ethics standards were adopted that would prevent members from receiving jobs and grants relating to defense.

After receiving the report, APA fired its ethics director and pressured three other staff members to resign or accept early retirement. At APA’s annual convention in Toronto in August, the major theme was resetting the association’s “moral compass.”

Many past elected officers of APA were also roundly criticized in the report and several have indicated lawsuits may be filed as a result.

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