Newly released CIA documents expose a bitter internal feud over the qualifications and ethics of two former military psychologists who pushed the agency to adopt interrogation methods widely condemned as torture.
A series of internal emails reveal that the CIA’s own medical and psychological personnel expressed deep concern about an arrangement that put two outside contractors in charge of subjecting detainees to brutal measures including waterboarding, then also evaluating whether those methods were working or causing lasting harm.
In one of the more prescient warnings, an agency official wrote that “if some untoward outcome is later to be explained, their sole use in this role will be indefensible.” The message was dated June 2003, but seemed to anticipate the controversy that would engulf the agency when the details of the interrogation program were exposed.
The files, which also include documents that shed light on the death of a CIA prisoner in Afghanistan, were made public as part of an ongoing lawsuit against the two contract psychologists, James Mitchell and J. Bruce Jessen, by the American Civil Liberties Union.
“Jim and Bob have both shown blatant disregard for the ethics shared by almost all of their colleagues,” a second CIA memo concluded.
The records reveal that internal opposition to the agency’s reliance on the two men was more extensive and intense than has been previously disclosed. More than 13 years after those emails were sent — and eight since the program was dismantled — the controversy has yet to fully subside.
Just last week, the nominee to be the next director of the CIA, Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., was asked during a Senate confirmation hearing whether he would comply if ordered by President-elect Donald Trump to resume the use of waterboarding and other methods on terrorism suspects.
“Absolutely not,” Pompeo said in the hearing, adding that he could not “imagine that I would be asked that by the president-elect.” But Trump sent exactly that signal several times during the presidential campaign, and Pompeo has previously suggested that the United States went too far in banning coercive interrogation methods.
The CIA declined to comment. Henry Schuelke, an attorney for Mitchell and Jessen, said that his clients’ “interrogations of the world’s most extreme terrorists were authorized in their entirety by the Department of Justice and led to actionable intelligence that saved countless lives.” He also said in an email that the ACLU “continues to cherry-pick documents casting Dr. Mitchell and Dr. Jessen in a negative light.”
Mitchell also defended his role in a book released last year.
Dror Ladin, one of the ACLU attorneys involved in the case, described the contents of the newly released documents as disturbing. “It’s a dark endeavor that’s being discussed,” Ladin said in an interview, adding that the files expose “deep, deep concerns that even people within the CIA who are participating in the torture program have about Mitchell and Jessen’s ethics.”
At the time the messages were sent, the agency was still expanding its network of secret overseas prisons and subjecting captured al-Qaida operatives, including Sept. 11, 2001, attacks mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed, to harrowing waterboarding sessions.
The newly released files indicate that the agency was also beginning to evaluate at least some of its detainees for a potential transfer to a military detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
The concerns raised in the emails center on the agency’s decision to allow Mitchell and Jessen, who had been directly involved in interrogations, to also serve key roles on assessing prisoners being considered for transfer. To some on the CIA staff, this amounted to psychological malpractice.
“No professional in the field would credit their later judgments as psychologists assessing the subjects of their enhanced measures,” one of the emails said, using a term for the harsh interrogation methods that Mitchell and Jessen had brought to the CIA.
A separate message warned that Mitchell and Jessen seemed so wedded to the methods they had adapted from U.S. military training programs — meant to help U.S. service members survive captivity and torture by adversaries — that they were not “even exploring what the law enforcement community may have to offer.”
“We value their input but they should not be in charge of anything,” the memo said. “It’s hard for me to imagine that these guys can function with even a modicum of objectivity as researchers.”
The memos hint at an internal struggle for control of the interrogation program, pitting senior officials at the agency’s Counterterrorism Center against employees of the agency’s Office of Medical Services.
The Counterterrorism Center ultimately awarded Mitchell and Jessen increasingly rich contracts to manage the interrogation program. One of the newly released files praised their accomplishments and noted that between 2005 and 2009, the consulting firm created by the two psychologists had been paid more than $71 million.
A Senate investigation of the interrogation program released in 2014 included references to internal concerns about Mitchell and Jessen, and the CIA’s response to the report acknowledged that it had made mistakes in not addressing conflicts that emerged in their role as contractors.
Other newly released documents include a summary of an interview with Jessen as part of an internal CIA inquiry into the 2002 death of Gul Rahman, a detainee who died after being doused with water and left overnight in frigid conditions in a prison in Afghanistan known as the Salt Pit.
Jessen described Rahman as physically strong and defiant and said that his assessment had been that if the agency were “bound by the Geneva Convention, this person would not break.” He also described a scene in which Rahman was dragged from his cell, hooded and punched as part of a “hard takedown” that left him with “contusions on his face, leg and hands” but “nothing that required treatment.”
A separate document appears to be a prison record of Rahman’s final hours, six days after Mitchell and Jessen left the Salt Pit. It lists a series of overnight guard checks with notes that “Rahman is alive” followed by an entry at 10 a.m. saying “Rahman is dead.”
Attorneys for Mitchell and Jessen are seeking to have the ACLU lawsuit dismissed. A hearing on the matter is scheduled for Thursday afternoon.
The Washington Post’s Julie Tate contributed to this report.