6 Arguments for Calling the Psychologists Who Designed the CIA’s Torture Program War Criminals

Since the Unites States Senate released its report on Tuesday detailing the torture and abuse of at least 119 detainees under the Bush-era “enhanced interrogation” program, numerous human rights groups and UN officials have said those involved in the program should be prosecuted for violating international conventions against torture.  In other words, war crimes.


The Senate's 524-page report is a summary of a larger and more expansive study that has yet to be made public. But it provides detailed information of how the program came into existence, including the fact that the CIA relied on two private contractors to develop and evaluate the macabre techniques used by interrogators to obtain intelligence. (The report also concludes that the program played almost no role in providing information that led to the capture of terrorists or disruption terrorist attacks).

The two contractors, who are referred to in the report under the pseudonyms Grayson SWIGERT and Hammond DUNBAR, but who have been identified by the New York Times as Dr. James Mitchell and Dr. John "Bruce" Jessen, were deeply involved in the program. They devised the methods and participated in many of the interrogations listed in the report. They also profited enormously from the program’s expansion.

“CIA personnel, aided by two outside contractors,” Senator Dianne Feinstein wrote in the report’s introduction, “decided to initiate a program of indefinite secret detention and the use of brutal interrogation techniques in violation of U.S. law, treaty obligations, and our values.”

So, U.S. law was violated, and here is what the U.N. Convention against Torture, signed by the United States in 1988, defines torture as:

Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession.

Here are six reasons why Mitchell and Jessen (SWIGERT and DUNBAR) should be brought to justice for violating International Law.

1) SWIGERT and DUNBAR developed the methods used in the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program.

In early 2002, the CIA contracted psychologists SWIGERT and DUNBAR to develop and assess new coercive interrogation strategies. Neither of the two psychologists had experience performing actual interrogations (DUNBAR’s resume stated he participated in a one-week interrogation training course in 1992 and another course in 2002). Neither had any background in counterterrorism, Al-Qaeda, or any “relevant cultural or linguistic expertise,” according to the Senate report.

Instead, the two psychologists were involved with the U.S. Air Force Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) school, which prepares elite military personnel for the treatment they might endure if taken prisoner by countries that do not follow the Geneva Conventions.

The CIA was especially interested in SWIGERT’s research on “learned helplessness,” in which SWIGERT theorized that a person could become passive and depressed in response to “adverse or uncontrollable events,” according to the report.

The report describes how in July 2002, SWIGERT proposed using techniques from the SERE school that included the attention grasp, walling, facial hold, facial slap, cramped confinement, standing, stress positions, sleep deprivation, waterboard, use of diapers, use of insects, and mock burial. SWIGERT further proposed that the CIA enter into a contract with DUNBAR and himself to help develop the program.

Although the CIA claimed that the agency sought out the psychologists for their expertise in non-standard methods of interrogation, the Senate report concluded that “the CIA did not seek out SWIGERT and DUNBAR after a decision was made to use coercive interrogation techniques; rather, SWIGERT and DUNBAR played a role in convincing the CIA to adopt such a policy.”

The report found almost no indications that the CIA made significant effort to confer with experienced military or law enforcement interrogators to identify effective interrogation methods. The report said that a CIA interrogation team issued three interrogation strategies in April 2002. CIA headquarters chose the most “coercive interrogation option,” which was the one proposed by SWIGERT.

2) SERE training is supposed to replicate torture that violates International Law. The program was even more severe than the military training.

Although the CIA claimed that the enhanced interrogation techniques were the same as the methods used in the SERE school, the report concluded that the CIA pushed their use to the extreme. For instance, the U.S. military does not subject its students to multiple waterboarding sessions (Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded at least 183 times, according to the report). An attorney general for the CIA wrote in a letter that the SERE school’s use of the waterboard was "so different from subsequent Agency usage as to make it almost irrelevant.”

But Senator Carl Levin, a member of the Armed Services Committee, probably said it best in a 2008 statement related to the Senate’s inquiry of the CIA torture program. He said:

In SERE school, our troops who are at risk of capture are exposed in a controlled environment with great protections and caution - to techniques adapted from abusive tactics used against American soldiers by enemies such as the Communist Chinese during the Korean War. SERE training techniques include stress positions, forced nudity, use of fear, sleep deprivation and, until recently, the Navy SERE school used the waterboard. These techniques were designed to give our students a taste of what they might be subjected to if captured by a ruthless, lawless enemy so that they would be better prepared to resist. The techniques were never intended to be used against detainees in U.S. custody.

3) SWIGERT and DUNBAR participated in many of the interrogations and used many of the techniques they developed.

According to the Senate report, the CIA authorized only SWIGERT and DUNBAR to have contact with Abu Zubaydah, the first detainee to undergo the new enhanced interrogation techniques. Other CIA personnel were only allowed to observe the interrogations. At the time, the CIA believed Abu Zubaydah was a top Al Qaeda leader, a conclusion that later turned out to be false.

From August 4, 2002 through August 23, 2002, after being in complete isolation for 47 days, the report says Zubaydah was subjected to torture on a 24-hour basis. He was shackled, hooded and stripped naked. Before interrogators even asked any questions, they wrapped a towel around Zubaydah’s neck and slammed him against a wall. The interrogators then removed Zubaydah’s hood and brought in a coffin-looking box and placed it in the cell for Zubaydah to look at.

Zubaydah was waterboarded for two-and-half hours, according to the report, which caused him to cough, vomit and have involuntary spasms.

The report discovered that, despite the abuse, Zubaydah never produced any information related to upcoming terrorist attacks or revealed the identities of terrorists in the United States.

The station’s chief of Support Services stated that SWIGERT and DUNBAR “were frustrated that they kept beating Zubaydah up on the same question while getting the same physiologic response from him."

Despite producing no actionable intelligence, SWIGERT and DUNBAR wrote in a CIA cable that the interrogation was a success. In fact, they argued that the lack of intelligence proved the effectiveness of the enhanced interrogation techniques and recommended that the Zubaydah’s experience be used as a template for future interrogations.

The cable said:

Our goal was to reach the stage where we have broken any will or ability of subject to resist or deny providing us information (intelligence) to which he had access. We additionally sought to bring subject to the point that we confidently assess that he does not/not possess undisclosed threat information, or intelligence that could prevent a terrorist event.

In November 2002, DUNBAR was summoned to a CIA station to assist in the interrogation of Gul Rahman, a suspected Islamic extremist. While under DUNBAR’s supervision, CIA interrogators punched him, slapped him and dragged him through the dirt. A few days after DUNBAR left the station, Rahman was found dead in his cell from hypothermia. The senate report said that many abrasions were found on Rahman’s  shoulders, pelvis, arms, legs and face after his death.

When 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) was captured in 2003, SWIGERT and DUNBAR were immediately summoned to take over the interrogation. The two private contractors personally waterboarded their captive, according the report. They also threatened KSM’s children and subjected him to standing sleep deprivation, assault and stress positions.

Despite their effort, the interrogation produced almost no valuable intelligence, the report concluded.

At one point, DUNBAR reportedly said “he had not seen a 'resistor' [sic] like KSM, and was 'going to go to school on this guy.'”

4) SWIGERT and DUNBAR pushed for harsher interrogations, despite objections from CIA officers.

The report reveals that many people from the intelligence community were not on board with SWIGERT and DUNBAR’s methods.

The CIA’s chief of interrogations threatened to quit after receiving an interrogation plan proposed by DUNBAR for 'Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who was suspected to be involved in the USS Cole bombing. In an email to colleagues, the chief of interrogations wrote that he would “no longer be associated with the interrogation program due to serious reservation[s] [he had] about the current state of affairs.” He also wrote: “[T]his is a train wreak [sic] waiting to happen and I intend to get the hell off the train before it happens.”

DUNBAR’s plan proposed using the “full range of enhanced exploitation and interrogation measures,” including waterboarding, in order to eliminate al-Nashiri’s “sense of control” and produce the “desired level of helplessness.”

The chief of interrogations called DUNBAR’s plan “excessive.”

He wasn’t the only one to object to the contractor’s methods. In May 2003, a CIA interrogator reportedly told his colleagues that DUNBAR and SWIGERT’s model was based on methods developed by the North Vietnamese to extract confessions from U.S. airmen for the purposes of promoting “propaganda.” He suggested that the CIA “need[ed] a different working model for interrogating terrorists where confessions are not the ultimate goal.”

5) As private contractors, they profited enormously from the program.

As early as 2003, just after SWIGERT and DUNBAR wrapped up their interrogation of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a CIA doctor expressed concerns about possible conflicts of interest regarding SWIGERT and DUNBAR’s assessment of the programs effectiveness. He wrote in an email to his superiors that the two contractors “implicitly proposed continued use of the technique - at a daily compensation reported to be $1800/day, or four times that of interrogators who could not use the technique.”

The email continued: “[a]lthough these guys believe that their way is the only way, there should be an effort to define roles and responsibilities before their arrogance and narcissism evolve into unproductive conflict in the field.”

In 2005, the psychologists formed a company to work with the CIA. The contractors received $81 million from the agency, and the agency also agreed to cover all of the company’s legal expenses for criminal prosecutions through 2021.

A 2013 statement from the CIA admitted that agency “erred in permitting the contractors to assess the effectiveness of enhanced techniques. They should not have been considered for such a role given their financial interest in continued contracts with the CIA.”

6) The contractor’s conclusions that the program "saved lives" were used to brief members of Congress.

Michael Hayden, who was then the Director of the CIA, frequently cited DUNBAR and SWIGERT’s work to justify the program in his 2007 testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

On top of that, a CIA document titled “[SWIGERT] and [DUNBAR]” was faxed to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in 2009. The document reportedly contains a list of some of the “key captures and disrupted plots” that could not have been “discovered or reported by any other means.”

As we now know, the recently released Senate report found that the use of enhanced interrogation techniques played little, if any, role in disrupting or thwarting the terrorist plots that the CIA referred to in order to justify the use of torture.

Closing note:

Bloomberg reported this week that James Mitchell, one half the SWIGERT/DUNBAR duo, is retired and living in Land O’ Lakes Florida, where he enjoys kayaking, climbing and rafting.

In an interview with CNN this week, Mitchell reported that he is one of the psychologists credited in the report with developing the CIA’s torture techniques.

During the interview, he told CNN that the Senate’s report on CIA torture was “a pile of crap” and “an attempt to smear the men and women of the CIA.”

Meanwhile, while Mitchell soaks up the Florida sunrays, many of the people who suffered his abuse are still locked away. And those who were released likely remain traumatized and may never see their tormentors brought to justice.

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