The SASC Report on Detainee Treatment reveals that some information collected from al Qaeda–and not DOD’s attempts to find methods to interrogate detainees–is one key to discovering how we got in the torture business. The SASC report reveals (as Valtin has been pointing out for some time) that DOD first contacted JPRA–the unit that oversees SERE–for "information about detainee ‘exploitation’" on December 17, 2001. But there’s another reference that suggests James Mitchell–one of the two retired SERE psychologists who reverse-engineered SERE and oversaw the first interrogations–was already on the job. In the section, "JPRA Collaboration with Other Government Agencies" (meaning, CIA), this reference appears:

[classification redaction] In December 2001 or January 2002, a retired Air Force SERE psychologist, Dr. James Mitchell, [redaction that I bet talks about a CIA contract] asked his former colleague, the senior SERE psychologist at JPRA, Dr. John "Bruce" Jessen, to review documents describing al Qaeda resistance training. The two psychologists reviewed the materials, [half line redacted], and generated a paper on al Qaeda resistance capabilities and countermeasures to defeat that resistance. 

Note, the "December 2001 or January 2002" date comes from an interview of Jessen, not directly from Mitchell. It’s not clear anyone has asked when Mitchell got the al Qaeda documents–but by the time Jessen was interviewed on July 11, 2007, DOD had already sent out notice to preserve all documents relating to Mitchell, so he was already under legal scrutiny at the time Jessen gave these dates.

In a section describing a DIA training session Jessen and Joseph Witsch did, it’s clear the al Qaeda documents form the basis for the training.

[classification redaction] Mr. Witsch stated that he worked with Dr. Jessen to develop a set of briefing slides for the [acronym redacted] training. The Department of Defense provided the Committee with slide presentations that appeared to have been produced by JPRA for the March 8, 2002 training. Mr. Witsch testified that the two slide presentations (1) [half line redacted–elsewhere this appears unredacted as Al Qaeda Resistance Contingency Training: Contingency Training for (redacted) Personnel] Based on Recently Obtained Al Qaeda Documents" and (2) "Exploitation" — appeared to be the same as those used by JPRA in the March 8, 2002 training. Dr. Jessen told the Committee that he did not recognize the slides as those that he presented [redacted] but that the vast majority of the slides were consistent with what he would have taught at the training session. 

While the discussion of the slides connected with the al Qaeda documents is heavily redacted, it appears that these slides already attached techniques or objectives to interrogating al Qaeda detainees.

[classification redacted] The "Al Qaeda Resistance Contingency Training" presentation described methods used by al Qaeda to resist interrogation and exploitation and [half line redacted]. The presentation also described countermeasures to defeat al Qaeda resistance, including [~five lines redacted]. Mr. Witsch testified to the Committee that the countermeasures identified in the slides were "just an interpretation of what we were doing at the time and what we constantly did when we trained SERE students."

So just to review. By "December 2001 or January 2002," Mitchell already had documents presumably captured from al Qaeda, and he and Jessen proceeded to use those documents to develop a training session on interrogation (one they offered to both DIA and CIA). And al Qaeda’s resistance training–as much as SERE’s program–drove what "countermeasures" Mitchell and Jessen were recommending to the CIA and DIA.

That’s relevant because there’s no obvious reason Mitchell should have had an al Qaeda training manual in hand. At the time he still had his executive consulting company, Knowledge Works, which presumably wasn’t dealing in al Qaeda training. And he had none of the specialized expertise–Arabic skills or familiarity with al Qaeda–that might have gotten him access to such materials. 

Of course, it’s not hard to come up with a plausible explanation for how James Mitchell came upon some al Qaeda intelligence in 2001, before DOD started pursuing JPRA techniques for interrogation. As I suggested, the half-line redaction following the introduction of Mitchell in the SASC almost certainly describes an affiliation with the CIA. Put that together with Jane Mayer’s report that Mitchell (and Jessen) had permanently assigned desks at the CounterTerrorism Center at the CIA by summer of 2002, and her explanation that some dweeb at CIA first suggested Mitchell for the job:

As some point, the source said, a CIA officer who could not be identified, whom a colleague at the Agency described as "a nobody–a pocket-protector-wearing Joe Molecule" who was "in charge of the shrinks on the science side," turned to the former SERE school psychologists. Having retired from the military and been sidelined from the war on terror, Mitchell and Jessen were eager to get involved. "Mike knew these guys," the source working with the intelligence community recounted," and when his colleagues were wimps, he said they would fit the bill."

And it seems likely that CTC–which would have been the central custodian of intelligence coming back from the Afghan war–gave Mitchell that intelligence.

Which then leads us to the unsurprising likelihood that CTC had already engaged Mitchell to reverse-engineer SERE before the time Jim Haynes’ office contacted JPRA for help on interrogation in December 2001. 

Like I said–all this is unsurprising.

But the apparent timing undermines the claim that DOD, in an effort to find expertise internally, turned to (among others) SERE. It seems to support Mayer’s source’s contention that Mitchell and Jessen were engaged by CIA because they weren’t "wimps" and not because of any respect for expertise.



Marcy Wheeler aka Emptywheel is an American journalist whose reporting specializes in security and civil liberties.