Shameless

12.12.14 2:15 PM ET

The Luxury Homes That Torture and Your Tax Dollars Built

The CIA paid torture teachers James Mitchell and Bruce Jesser more than $80 million. As they now live out their wildest dreams, their barbarity has cost the U.S. far more.

Call them the houses that torture built: Two sprawling luxury homes purchased by the CIA-contracted psychologists at the center of the scathing Senate report.

James Elmer Mitchell and John Bruce Jessen are not the first Americans to employ waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques” against our enemies. 

But they are almost certainly the only ones to get rich doing it.

They did so by employing what is widely dismissed as “voodoo science” based on misapplied principles in a program that CIA records suggest produced little, if any, intelligence of significant value.

And they might have gotten even richer. The Senate Intelligence Committee report says they secured a contract with the CIA in 2006 valued “in excess of $180 million.”

The CIA canceled the deal three years later, but by then the duo had received $81 million. They had more than enough to build fabulous new domiciles that surely at least equal their wildest dreams.

Mitchell’s pied a torture is in Florida. Records describe a waterfront residence on six-tenths of an acre and appraised at more than $880,000, with 4,233 square feet of living space, four bathrooms, a three-car garage, a pool, central air-conditioning, and a wooded walkway leading to a lakeside combination dock and gazebo.

Jessen’s is in the state of Washington, situated on 15 acres and appraised at $1,599,900. Records describe this house as 6,916 square feet, with six bedrooms and eight bathrooms. An aerial image shows what appears to be a spa, roiling water apparently carrying no nasty connotations.

“We are proud of the work we have done for our country,” Mitchell and Jessen have said in a joint statement.

The Senate report notes that in addition to the $81 million, the CIA accorded the two a “multi-year indemnification agreement” to shield them, their firm, and its employees from any “legal liability arising out of the program.”

“The CIA has since paid out more than $1 million pursuant to the agreement,” the report notes.

By comparison, a number of American officers who employed what was essentially waterboarding on Philippine insurgents at the start of the 20th century were hit with court-martials. Most were acquitted by military courts that found the torture justified under the circumstances. But President Theodore Roosevelt made his opinion known by writing a single word on the papers reporting the acquittal of 1st Lt. Edwin Hickman.

“Disapproved.”

In a private letter, Roosevelt said that the Filipinos had long employed the “water care” and that it did not generally inflict lasting damage. He also wrote, “Torture is not a thing that we can tolerate.”

One Philippines case—in which a Catholic priest died after being waterboarded three times—did not even go to trial, despite Judge Advocate General George Davis’ contention that it quite possibly constituted a “felonious homicide.” 

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“A resort to torture to obtain either confession or information from a prison of war… is a violation of the laws of war and as such is triable,” Davis said in reviewing the case.

The U.S. Justice Department nonetheless declined to charge the officer who oversaw the torture, a captain named Brownell. Another American officer, Capt. Edwin Glenn, was convicted of cruelty in a non-fatal turn-of-the-century case in the Philippines. He was admonished and fined $50, but allowed to remain in the Army. He is said to have gone on to become a major general.

The U.S. took a more serious view of waterboarding when it was done to Americans in World War II. A number of Japanese soldiers were criminally charged and convicted for waterboarding and otherwise torturing prisoners. The allegations against a Japanese officer who was sentenced to 15 years read in part:

“Did willfully and unlawfully, brutally mistreat and torture… an American prisoner of war, by beating and kicking him; by fastening him on a stretcher and pouring water up his nostrils.”

In a legal history of water-torture cases in the U.S. courts, Evan Wallach cites the testimony of American Capt. Chase Nielson in another such case.

Q: Did the questioners threaten you with any other treatment while you were being questioned?

A: Yes, I was given several types of torture.... I was given what they call the water cure.*

Q: What was your sensation when they were pouring water... what did you physically feel?

A: Well, I felt more or less like I was drowning, just gasping between life and death..

Wallach notes that water torture was also employed by the enemy during the Korean War. He cites an interview that a freed POW, Air Force Lt. Col. William Harrison, gave to The New York Times in 1953.

“They would bend my head back, put a towel over my face and pour water over the towel,” Harrison was quoted as saying. “I could not breathe.... When I would pass out, they would shake me and begin again.”

In an effort to prepare Americans for waterboarding and other forms of torture and abuse, the military created the SERE (Survival Evasion Resistance Escape) program.

As conceived by Army Lt. Col. James “Nick” Rowe, who had been a POW for six years during the Vietnam War, SERE created “enemy” compounds. Role-playing instructors subjected trainees to an approximation of what they might encounter if they were captured by an enemy so cruel and cowardly not to respect the Geneva Conventions.

Each branch of the services established its own SERE program, the Air Force at Fairchild Air Force Base in Washington. The psychologists who served there included two officers, James Elmer Mitchell and John Bruce Jessen.

Mitchell’s doctoral thesis had been about the relation between diet and exercise and hypertension. Jessen’s thesis had been about “family modeling,” or therapy where the patients sculpt figures representing relatives. Neither man seems to have had any experience or training in interrogation, but they were adequately qualified for their most important task, which was to make sure the instructors did not get carried away with their roles as torturers.

By late summer of 2001, and both men had retired as lieutenant colonels, with an eye toward supplementing their modest pensions with private contracting.

Then, not a month after Mitchell left the Air Force, came the 9/11 attacks. He and Jessen convinced a stunned and desperate CIA that they were the ones to run a new interrogation program.

British authorities had earlier raided a suspected terrorist’s home and recovered what was described as an “al Qaeda handbook” that contained some rudimentary advice about resisting interrogation.

Mitchell and Jessen now proposed to “reengineer” the SERE program so that the role-playing was real, but with Americans being the interrogators and terrorists being the subjects.

One hitch in the duo’s concept was that such tortures had generally been used to break the prisoner’s spirit and extract false confessions, not to elicit accurate and actionable intelligence.

Mitchell and Jessen are said to have argued that the “enhanced interrogation techniques” would only be used to reduce the subject to a state of “learned helplessness.” The questioning would come afterward.

Had the CIA bothered to ask around, it would have quickly determined that the concept of “learned helplessness” arose from experiments involving dogs conducted in the 1960s at the University of Pennsylvania with the hope of extrapolating some insight into human depression.

The primary researchers included Dr. Martin Seligman, who would have told the CIA that he had met Mitchell shortly after 9/11 at a small conference about Muslim extremism. Mitchell had effusively complimented Seligman on his work. But Seligman never imagined how Mitchell might put the concept to work, in part because it was so ill-suited to that purpose. Seligman no doubt would have told the CIA back then pretty much what he told The Daily Beast by email this week.

“I have never worked on interrogation; I have never seen an interrogation, and I have only a passing knowledge of the literature on interrogation,” he wrote. “With that qualification, my opinion is that the point of interrogation is to get at the truth, not to get at what the interrogator wants to hear. I think learned helplessness would make someone more passive, less defiant and more compliant, but I know of no evidence that it leads reliably to more truth-telling.”

Seligman added, “I am grieved and horrified that good science, which has helped so many people overcome depression, may have been used for such dubious purposes.”

But the CIA quite literally bought Mitchell and Jessen’s proposal, reportedly at an initial rate of around $1,800 a day, each, tax-free. Mitchell is said to have gone with a CIA team to where Abu Zubaydah, our first big al Qaeda prisoner, was recovering from gunshot wounds suffered when he was captured.

At the time Zubaydah was grabbed, one of his captors had snapped on handcuffs belonging to Port Authority Police Officer Donald McIntyre, who had died at the World Trade Center. Zubaydah was treated by the same rules that would have applied even to a cop killer in America as the FBI began the initial questioning.

One agent in particular developed a rapport with Zubaydah and managed to elicit an all-important bit of intelligence. Zubaydah indentified Khalid Sheikh Mohammed as the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks.

Perhaps in part because it was an FBI coup, the CIA stepped in with its high-priced psychologist. Mitchell is said to have taken an active part in the “enhanced” interrogation, thereby becoming the highest paid waterboarder in history.

By most accounts, Zubaydah shut down, marking the first of what the Senate report describes as a series of failures by Mitchell and Jessen. It seems entirely possible that the ”learned helplessness” in other prisoners produced some of the bogus information that led to the fiction about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, thereby making an equally fictive case for invasion.

As recounted by the Senate report, the Mitchell and Jessen program seemed to be proving anew the wisdom of a Japanese manual, Notes for the Interrogation of Prisoners of War, issued in 1943:

“Care must be taken when making use of rebukes, invective, or torture as it will result in his telling falsehoods and make a fool of you,” it says.

Of course, the CIA paid the two psychologists even more, awarding the $180 million contract to the firm they founded, Mitchell, Jessen & Associates. They might have scored all that dough if word of the waterboarding had not leaked. Those who spoke out against it included a fellow Air Force colonel, Lindsay Graham, who also happens to be a U.S. senator.

In his capacity as a reservist with the Air Force Judge Advocate’s Office, Graham co-authored a 2013 paper, titled ”Waterboarding: Issues and Lessons.”

To offer an historical perspective, the report quotes a 17th-century account of the same procedure that Mitchell and Jensen would later be paid a fortune to administer:

“The torturer thrown over his [the victim’s] mouth and nostrils a thin cloth, so that he is scarcely able to breathe thro’ them, and in the mean while a small stream of water like a thread, not drop by drop, falls from on high, upon the mouth of the person lying in this miserable condition, and so easily sinks down the thin cloth to the bottom of his throat, so that there is no possibility of breathing, his mouth being stopped with water and his nostrils with the cloth, so that the poor wretch is in the same agony as persons ready to die, and breathing out their last.”

The Graham report goes on to address the situation more than three centuries later.

“It has been reported that DoD contemplated using waterboarding after the September 11 attacks and that another non-DoD agency did use the technique in a limited manner to gather intelligence regarding a feared second wave of attacks,” the report says. “Waterboarding can inflict severe physical and emotional pain and suffering, and any military or civilian agent of the government who waterboards a detainee would place themselves at risk for prosecution.”

The report goes on to assert, “The humane treatment of enemy personnel in military custody is important for non-legal reasons, too. Since service members are most at risk of being captured during armed conflicts, there is a concern that any maltreatment perpetrated by the United States will create an environment where captured service members may be abused and brutalized as well.”

That exact argument has been made by Graham’s fellow senator, John McCain, who was tortured as a prisoner during the Vietnam War. A civilian corollary was proven when ISIS waterboarded journalist James Foley before beheading him.

The report concludes, “The manner in which the United States treats detainees reflects the values of the nation…. Rather than constrain the defense of the nation, compliance with these legal norms shows America’s true mettle and the strength of its convictions. Torture and barbarity must be rejected even in the face of great adversity.”

Such talk and a paucity of demonstrable successes seem to have prompted the CIA to cancel Mitchell and Jessen’s contract. They still had the $81 million that has to amaze everybody on all sides of the issue.

Jessen was named a Mormon bishop, but the appointment was met with vocal protests. He retains the comfort of his grand new home.

Mitchell has been reported saying that he grew up poor in Florida. He must take particular delight in his own luxurious abode.

Neither man could be reached for comment, but you have to figure they are faring far better than any other waterboarders over the centuries.

And, since they are indemnified, not even the courts can take away those two splendid houses that torture built.