The narrative is in place. James Mitchell and John “Bruce” Jessen made millions of dollars having convinced the CIA to construct a torture program via reverse-engineering brutal methods of interrogation used in their previous employment in a military program meant to prepare U.S. military and intelligence personnel for torture by a foreign power or terrorist group.

According to numerous accounts, from Katherine Eban in Vanity Fair in July 2007 all the way to the release earlier this month of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) Executive Summary (large PDF) of their report on the CIA interrogation/torture program, Mitchell and Jessen are described as “inexperienced.” Numerous “experienced” interrogators are often quoted to condemn the former Air Force psychologists for use of torture, which is not, we’re told, “effective” in eliciting information from prisoners or detainees. (These same people usually have nothing to say about the use of abusive techniques amounting to torture in the Army’s Field Manual on interrogations, recently condemned by a UN oversight committee.)

The SSCI Summary specifically stated, “Neither psychologist had experience as an interrogator, nor did either have specialized knowledge of al-Qa’ida, a background in terrorism, or any relevant regional, cultural, or linguistic expertise” (p. 21).

A December 17, 2014 editorial in the New York Times mirrored this language, without specifically quoting the SSCI report: “The two psychologists who were hired in an atmosphere of panic in the months after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, had no experience as interrogators, no specialized knowledge of Al Qaeda, no background in counterterrorism, and no relevant cultural or linguistic expertise.”

But contradicting this account, new evidence shows Mitchell was on a selective list of experts sent to a conference at the FBI’s Academy in Quantico, Virginia a full month before he was said to have proposed his “enhanced interrogation” techniques to the CIA. Mitchell was apparently chosen as one of 60 experts in counterterrorism, according to a list of participants for a conference, “Combatting Terrorism: Integration of Practice and Theory” (PDF), held on February 28, 2002.

“James Mitchell: CIA, Langley, VA” was one of only two CIA participants named at the event, which was supposed to bring together “highly qualified law enforcement officers with various terrorism experts and academics.”

“An Invitational Conference”

The conference report includes appendices on “Information Management and Evaluation,” “Psychology of Deception,” and “Data Mining,” among other topics. Its participants were said to be “at the forefront of counter-terrorism efforts.” The conference itself was written up in APA’s house organ, Monitor.

The conference was billed as “invitational,” and sponsored by the Behavioral Science Unit, FBI Academy; the Science Directorate of the American Psychological Association (APA); the School of Arts & Sciences and the Solomon Asch Center for the Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict at the University of Pennsylvania; and the Decade of Behavior Initiative.

The Decade of Behavior Initiative was really a campaign run by the APA, not an organization. The Solomon Asch Center for the Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict was, according to a U of Penn press release, “the brainchild of two men: Martin Seligman, a Penn psychology professor and former American Psychological Association president, and former Canadian Psychological Association President Peter Suedfeld.” Both Decade and the Solomon Asch Center were christened in 1998.

Seligman has been linked to James Mitchell on a number of occasions, while Suedfeld has a history of research in sensory deprivation, and has worked as a consultant to the Canadian Department of National Defence. In April 2006, APA published a letter from Suedfeld in Monitor, where he condemned those who connected the work of some psychologists with the use of torture as “groundless attacks” that “recur without any factual basis.”

By “Happenstance” or Other Means

If Mitchell was really a nobody, why was he tasked by the CIA’s Office of Technical Services in December 2001 to write up, with his partner John “Bruce” Jessen, an analysis of supposed Al Qaeda resistance techniques to interrogation? Why was he picked — by “happenstance,” according to New York Times reporter Matt Apuzzo — to join the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah? And to the point of this article, why was he selected to attend a conference that was billed as “invitational” and meant to consist of experts in their fields?

It seems a lot of thought went into the decision of whom to invite. According to the report’s preface, “The practical decisions of whom to invite, what to discuss, where and when to convene were difficult to make…. restricting the list of invitees to only sixty individuals from among the numerous experts in law enforcement and civilian populations was most formidable…. Time, space and availability restricted the number of invitations.”

The report’s preface was written by Anthony J. Pinizzotto, PhD, then Senior Scientist at the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit (BSU) (now retired); Susan E. Brandon, Ph.D., then-Senior Scientist at APA; and Geoffrey K. Mumford, PhD, APA’s then-Director of Science Policy. Presumably they were also the organizers of the conference, and responsible for who was invited.

Brandon and Mumford have been named in a recent book by James Risen as primary actors in the APA’s courting of national security agencies. They were both involved in the organization of a 2003 workshop sponsored by APA, CIA and Rand Corporation on the “Science of Deception,” that discussed the use of “sensory overload” and “pharmacological agents… known to affect apparent truth-telling behavior” during interrogation.

Both are likely targets of a supposed “independent” investigation into actions of APA in relation to the use of torture by the CIA and Department of Defense, an investigation, moreover, led by a former associate of George Tenet.

Susan Brandon is a today a primary figure in the Obama Administration’s High-value Detainee or HIG program, where she is Chief of Research.

An Unravelling Narrative

The FBI/APA conference was held approximately a month before James Mitchell was sent to the CIA’s black site prison in Thailand to join in and ultimately reportedly to lead the interrogation of supposed Al Qaeda high-value detainee, Abu Zubaydah. The story of how that happened has been described in two Congressional investigations and numerous articles by investigative reporters.

The latest account, by the Senate’s SSCI, describes Mitchell as working for the CIA’s Office of Technical Services (OTS) at the time he was chosen for the Zubaydah interrogation. While the New York Times account by Risen and Apuzzo reduces OTS, cutely, to “the arm of the C.I.A. that creates disguises and builds James Bond-like spy gadgets,” OTS had a long history of researching human behavior under stress, and exploiting human assets via drugs, hypnosis and other mind control techniques.

In a more pertinent understanding of the role of OTS, my recent article at Al Jazeera America describes the history of OTS in regards to illegal human experimentation and MKULTRA research that led directly to the propagation of a CIA torture program in the 1960s and thereafter.

Slowly but surely, the false narrative, meant to pin much of the blame for the hideous torture program on James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen — who certainly deserve a good deal of blame, and also prosecution for their role in the torture — is fraying at the edges. Last week, I showed that the knowledge of what the CIA was doing, at least during the years the SSCI was headed by GOP Senator Pat Roberts and Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller, was greater than what the SSCI has admitted thus far. SSCI staffers had toured the CIA’s “Dark Prison” (aka “Salt Pit”) in Afghanistan in late 2003. Perhaps this happened around or at the same time that U.S. Bureau of Prison members toured the same facility, according to the SSCI report.

It is my firm belief that there are some people in the Intelligence Community, and also those who follow and even critique, from time to time, the IC, who know that Mitchell played a bigger role before his interrogation of Abu Zubaydah than is generally acknowledged. In general, the knowledge of what the CIA and DoD was doing back in the early 2000’s was not something that was spoken of publicly, but was known by a number of academics, psychologists and medical professionals, military officers and interrogators, and in particular, by Special Forces operators and… APA officials. How much was known by Congressional oversight officials is a matter of some contention, though it’s obvious many, if not most, were frozen out, while others preferred not to know.

There will be no real accountability for these crimes under our current political structure. I’m not sure what it will take to get there. Some put their hope in universal jurisdiction prosecution. Some despair of any accountability happening at all. I believe that if there will be an accounting, it will be part of more general political overhaul of the U.S. political system and culture.

The revelation that Mitchell was part of the IC “experts” crowd, and then covered up as same for years, speaks to the corruption of large swathes of the Establishment. Remember, the information in the article you are reading has been available on the Internet for seven years!

All I can ask as an activist is that people speak up, don’t respect any authority, even those of the “left” or “progressive” crowd, and demand a passion and commitment for the truth from those whose job it is to report the truth.

Epilogue: Looking back through my materials, I see that I wrote about the 2/28/02 conference when I blogged as “Valtin” at Daily Kos back in 2006-07. On January 7, 2007 I wrote the diary, “FBI & American Psych. Association Attack Patient Confidentiality.” In that article, I concentrated on recommendations by the joint FBI/APA conference to convince psychologists to become informants on their patients and their families and acquaintances.

I pointed out the relevant sections of the report for readers (bold emphases from original article):

There is a need for the American Psychological Association and state psychological associations to develop an ethical code for practitioners for instances where a client may have information relevant to terrorism (similar to other mandates that already exist, such as those for instances of abuse of children and the elderly and a client’s intention to harm himself or another person). Such instances are peculiar because they involve third-party harm. Psychologists need to be trained for what behaviors to look for, and how to report information to law enforcement while protecting the client and their family and community. This may include some kinds of cross-cultural training. The APA may have to work with legislatures and licensing boards regarding some of these issues. Similar training and issues of confidentiality need to be considered for the training of clergy, teachers, and physicians….

It was suggested that the APA might develop guidelines for such reporting, and offer these to other agencies (school systems, social services), where appropriate.

I wish I had noticed then the presence of Mitchell on the list of participants at this conference. But seeing it there now, it all fits together.

Jeff Kaye

Jeff Kaye

Jeffrey Kaye is a retired psychologist who has worked professionally with torture victims and asylum applicants. Active in the anti-torture movement since 2006, he has his own blog, Invictus, previously wrote regularly for Firedoglake’s The Dissenter, as well as at The Guardian, Truthout, Alternet, and The Public Record. He is the author of Cover-Up at Guantanamo, a new book examining declassified files on treatment of prisoners at the Guantanamo detention camp.