The controversial interrogation methods that two American psychologists designed for prisoners who were accused of atrocities on 9/11 once again have gained national prominence.
The methods, called torture by some and enhanced interrogation by others, were back in the news in January as the psychologists testified in preliminary court hearings at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba.
The hearings were a lead-up to the planned 2021 death-penalty trial in U.S. military court of five defendants accused of plotting the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. James Mitchell, Ph.D., and John “Bruce” Jessen, Ph.D., oversaw the interrogations at secret CIA prisons. Both men had been instructors at an Air Force program that trains the military how to withstand torture and used their experiences to design the interrogations.
During eight days of questioning at the pre-trial hearings, Mitchell testified that he told defendant Khalid Shaikh Mohammed that he would cut the throat of one of Mohammed’s young sons if the United States was attacked again, the New York Times reported. Mohammed has been accused of being the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks.
Mitchell also testified that he had waterboarded Mohammed multiple times in one month in 2003 and said he did not consider that or other methods used — including sleep deprivation or being stripped of clothing — as torture, according to The Times. But he also said he sometimes considered the CIA interrogations abusive.
Pre-trial hearings in the five defendants’ cases have been ongoing for years because of numerous legal issues, including whether the CIA interrogation of prisoners was torture, which is prohibited by international law. The military judge, Air Force Col. Shane Cohen, will rule on that, which could determine if statements prisoners gave to the FBI can be used in their trial.
President George W. Bush’s administration allowed the interrogation techniques in the wake of 9/11.
Mitchell testified the program’s goal was to prevent more attacks.
“I felt my moral obligation to protect American lives outweighed the temporary discomfort of terrorists who voluntarily took up arms against us,” the Associated Press (AP) quoted him as saying.
In testimony at pre-trial hearings, Jessen said interrogation of the suspected terrorists had no lasting effects on them, the AP reported. He was expected to resume his testimony in March.
The CIA paid Mitchell and Jessen $81 million for their work, a U.S. Senate report on the detention program noted.
The psychologists’ interrogation of prisoners has been a thorn in the side of the APA for years.
In 2015, the association released a 542-page report it had commissioned regarding the interrogation of alleged terrorists held as prisoners. Known as the Hoffman Report, it concluded that APA policies had fostered weak ethical restraints on psychologists’ involvement in terrorist detention facilities to curry favor with the Department of Defense. It also said that then APA ethics director, Stephen Behnke, JD, Ph.D., contracted with the Pentagon to train interrogators.
Behnke was fired after the report was released and the APA apologized for its involvement.
The report also said some doctors and psychologists with the CIA did not approve of the interrogation methods.
Since the Hoffman Report was issued, the APA has called Mitchell and Jessen’s work on the interrogations unethical. The organization’s policy now prohibits psychologists from working on national security interrogations at terrorist detention sites.
The American Civil Liberties Union sued Jessen and Mitchell in 2015 on behalf of two former prisoners and the family of a detainee who died in one of the secret prisons. The psychologists settled that lawsuit in 2017 before it went to trial; the details of the settlement are confidential. U.S. District Judge Justin Quackenbush, said at the time that the federal government was paying for Jessen and Mitchell’s attorneys and would pay for any cash award by a jury, according to The Spokesman-Review.
The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Report on the Rendition, Detention and Interrogation Program concluded in 2014 that the interrogation of 39 detainees by Mitchell and Jessen did not produce intelligence that disrupted terrorist plots, led to the capture of terrorists or saved lives. The CIA disagreed with that conclusion.
Kathy Lynn Gray is a longtime associate editor and contributor to the National Psychologist.