Two military retirees and psychologists with "no relevant scholarship" made millions of dollars as the driving force behind the CIA's controversial interrogation program ultimately terminated under the Obama administration, according to a New York Times report Wednesday.
Beginning in 2002, the CIA contracted Dr. Jim Mitchell and Dr. Bruce Jessen to devise an interrogation strategy for suspected al Qaeda operatives that included waterboarding, a technique later characterized as torture.
The ripple effects of the program are still being felt months after it was cancelled by the White House, as Attorney General Eric J. Holder Jr. weighs the pursuit a criminal investigation. He's expected to make a decision in the coming weeks. The CIA is also set to release a 2004 report on the program by the agency's inspector general, according to the Times.
Mitchell and Jessen, who both served as Air Force psychologists training service members in interrogation resistance, pursued completely different research while obtaining their degrees, according to the report.
After serving in the Air Force as an explosives expert, Mitchell completed his doctorate at the University of South Florida in 1986. His research compared diet and exercise in controlling hypertension.
Jessen studied "family sculpting" – where patients construct models of family members to define their emotional relationships – on his way to earning a doctorate from Utah State University.
Both men worked in the Air Force's Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape, or SERE, training program, which was created to prepare service members for the harsh Chinese-style interrogations undergone by Americans during the Korean War. Jessen served as the program's top psychologist during the 1980s before moving on to head a "graduate" training program. Mitchell replaced Jessen after the move.
Around the time of the 9/11 attacks, the now retired Mitchell created training company Knowledge Works. Using his extensive military contacts, Mitchell began circulating his theories on demoralizing al Qaeda suspects into cooperation, according to the report. His ideas were well received within the CIA and, with Jessen, he wrote a proposal that based American interrogation strategy on enemy practices - slaps, stress positions, sleep deprivation, wall-slamming and waterboarding.
In 2002, Abu Zubaydah, reportedly al Qaeda's third in command, was being interrogated at a CIA prison in Thailand. FBI investigators had originally used conventional techniques like rapport-building to obtain intelligence. Mitchell arrived later and directed a more coercive treatment for Zubaydah including sleep deprivation and 83 waterboarding sessions over several months. During the interrogation, FBI and even some CIA officials reportedly expressed reservations about the use of torture techniques.
Jessen joined his partner in July before both men determined that the suspect had no more information to yield.
With Justice Department authorization of the enhanced interrogation techniques, business was booming for the pair. The each made between $1,000 and $2,000 a day. What started out as a home-based operation became a 60-employee business with offices in Spokane and Virginia by 2007.
But it just as quickly dried up. Beginning in 2006, elements within the Bush administration, notably Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, started questioning the legitimacy of the program. Public opinion began to steadily deteriorate until the Obama administration took office and terminated the program.
Now in danger of becoming ensnared in a criminal probe, Mitchell and Jessen have retained well known defense lawyer, Henry F. Scheulke III, according to the Times.