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The Psychologists Behind Abusive Interrogations of Detainees

This morning The New York Times' Scott Shane reports that back in late 2002 trainers at Guantanamo Bay "based an entire interrogation class on a chart" (pdf) that had been "copied verbatim from a 1957 Air Force study of Chinese Communist techniques used during the Korean War.

Interrogation room in Camp Delta at Gitmo (Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)The chart listed "coercive management techniques," including "sleep deprivation," "prolonged constraint," and "exposure." The aim of the Chinese tactics was not to gain intelligence but rather to get propaganda statements. The study's title (pdf) summarized the approach: "Communist Attempts to Elicit False Confessions From Air Force Prisoners of War."

The Times explains that the chart had originally been used as part of the U.S. military's training program meant to prepare airmen and other service members in the event they were captured. Then the tactics migrated:    

In 2002, the training program, known as SERE, for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape, became a source of interrogation methods both for the C.I.A. and the military.

This morning's Times doesn't go into any more detail about the connections between SERE and abusive interrogations of detainees. But othershave.

As the New Yorker's Jane Mayer and others have reported, psychologists who once worked on the SERE program appear to have played a key role in transferring abusive techniques for use on detainees.

According to the New Yorker's Mayer:

[As] early as March, 2002, James Mitchell, a psychologist formerly affiliated with SERE, appeared inside an interrogation room where the C.I.A. was holding a "high-value" Al Qaeda suspect. (The interrogation took place at an undisclosed location.) Mitchell worked for years as a SERE administrator. In an interview, he said that he is now a private contractor and does not currently work with the Department of Defense. Asked if he has worked with the C.I.A., conducting interrogations, he said, "If that was true, I couldn't say anything about it." (A press officer at the C.I.A. also declined to comment on Mitchell.)

According to a counter-terrorism expert familiar with the interrogation of the al-Qaida suspect, Mitchell announced that the suspect needed to be subjected to rougher methods. The man should be treated like the dogs in a classic behavioral-psychology experiment, he said.

An article last year on Vanity Fair's Web site reported that the high-value detainee Mitchell appears to have helped interrogate in March 2002 was Abu Zubaydah, a top al-Qaida commander:

As Zubaydah clammed up, Mitchell seemed to conclude that Zubaydah would talk only when he had been reduced to complete helplessness and dependence. With that goal in mind, the C.I.A. team began building a coffin in which they planned to bury the detainee alive.

CIA superiors reportedly overruled the suggestion to bury Zubaydah. But according to Vanity Fair, Mitchell, along with fellow psychologist, Bruce Jessen, "reverse-engineered the tactics inflicted on SERE trainees":  

The C.I.A. put them in charge of training interrogators in the brutal techniques, including "waterboarding," at its network of "black sites." In a statement, Mitchell and Jessen said, "We are proud of the work we have done for our country."

The two psychologists eventually started their own consulting firm, Mitchell Jessen & Associates. It's unclear what the company's work is. We called and were told that the firm "does not speak to the press."

In addition to hearing their side of the story, we are interested in learning what contracts, if any, the company currently has with the government. We have filed a FOIA with the Department of Defense. Such requests don't have a high chance of success due to national security exemptions. But it's worth trying.  We'll let you know what we find.

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