For the first time since the CIA launched its post-9/11 “war on terror” torture program, the agency has officially unmasked the two Air Force psychologists credited as the program’s architects.
Dr. Bruce Jessen and Dr. James Mitchell were identified by name in an April 27, 2005, CIA Inspector General report that probed the circumstances surrounding the death of 34-year-old Afghan militant Gul Rahman, according to documents obtained exclusively by VICE News in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. Rahman was rendered from Pakistan in October 2002 and detained at a secret black site prison in Afghanistan code-named COBALT and also known as the Salt Pit.
There, he froze to death after undergoing a brutal torture regimen.
Though Mitchell and Jessen have been known for years as the architects of the program, the CIA never officially confirmed their role until now. This is, in fact, the first time the CIA disclosed the names of anyone who played roles in the interrogation of detainees held captive by the agency.
For years, the CIA argued that identifying any of its officers or contractors who were involved in its so-called detention and interrogation program could lead al-Qaeda to target them and their families; Mitchell told VICE News in an exclusive 2014 interview that he had received dozens of death threats, and that jihadists on Twitter called for his and Jessen’s beheading.
The agency did not respond to requests for comment about why it decided to reveal Mitchell and Jessen’s identities and declassify additional details about Rahman’s death. The ACLU is suing both psychologists in federal court, alleging human experimentation and torture; Rahman’s family members are among the plaintiffs. It’s likely the two men’s names were disclosed as a result of that court case, which is expected to go to trial next year.
Regardless, the CIA apparently no longer felt it was too dangerous to declassify Mitchell and Jessen’s affiliation with the agency.
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A redacted copy of the 68-page Inspector General report, which was entitled “Death of a Detainee,” was released to VICE News in June, but Jessen and Mitchell’s names were blacked out. Last week, the CIA turned over another version of the report [pdf at the end of this story], unmasking the two contractors and unredacting a slew of other details, kept secret for more than a decade, about its torture program, Rahman’s death, and how CIA personnel at the black site and officials in Langley tried to cover it up.
The new details reveal far more brutality than had been previously disclosed.
“The official release of additional details on the death of CIA detainee Gul Rahman is significant,” said Daniel Jones, a former Senate Intelligence Committee staffer who led the investigation into the CIA’s torture program and was the principal author of its subsequent 6,000-page report released in 2014, told VICE News Friday.
“Just four months after the death of Rahman, the individual in charge of the detention site where Rahman died was recommended for a cash award for his ‘consistently superior work,’” Jones said. “This same individual was allowed to skip formal interrogation training sessions because of his experience at the detention site.”
The CIA did not officially reveal the identity of that officer: Matthew Zirbel, who also led some of Rahman’s interrogation sessions. Jessen, who was present for at least the first 10 days of Rahman’s detention, provided instruction to Zirbel on the use of certain techniques, as Zirbel was a “first-tour operations officer with no experience or training in interrogations or prison operations,” according to the report.
The CIA station chief in Kabul and a linguist were two other people who were part of Rahman’s interrogation team.
One of the most noteworthy and previously unreported revelations in the new version of the report is that Mitchell was present at the black site and participated in one of Jessen’s interrogation sessions of Rahman. Mitchell had traveled there to participate in the interrogation of another detainee.
“Mitchell stated that he observed [Zirbel] interrogate Rahman on one occasion for about 10 minutes; Rahman was uncooperative,” the report said. “Mitchell stated Rahman appeared healthy; however, he had scratches on his face, bruises on his ankles, and his wrists were black and blue. Mitchell requested that the [physician’s assistant] examine Rahman’s hands.”
The physician’s assistant subsequently told the inspector general that no one had ever requested that he examine Rahman’s hands. A newly unredacted footnote in the report says that physicians were not on hand at the black site, only assistants. And the physician’s assistant Mitchell asked to tend to Rahman was ultimately taken to task by the inspector general for not providing Rahman with the same medical care that was provided to other detainees.
Jessen is named in the report 58 times, and Mitchell nine times. About four years after Rahman’s death, they would be awarded a sole-source, multimillion-dollar contract to manage the entirety of the so-called enhanced interrogation program.
Attorneys representing Mitchell and Jessen did not respond to requests for comment, and Mitchell said he could not comment on this story. He has a book set to come out at the end of November titled “Enhanced Interrogation: Inside the Minds and Motives of the Islamic Terrorists Trying to Destroy America.” The book, according to publisher Crown Forum, is a first-person account of the “interrogation program’s earliest moments” and “its darkest hours.” “Readers will follow [Mitchell] inside the secretive ‘black sites’ and cells of terrorists and terror suspects where he personally applied enhanced interrogation techniques.”
VICE News has learned the book will go into detail about Rahman’s death.
Mitchell told VICE News in previous interviews that he and Jessen raised numerous concerns with the inspector general about the way in which the interrogation program was operated and managed during its initial stage. A new disclosure in the report from a top CIA counterterrorism official said the torture program was operated efficiently after Rahman died.
“Unfortunately, [COBALT] began operation while CIA was still in the process of establishing uniform and detailed program guidance on detention and interrogations practices, and prior to development of the structured, tightly controlled… detention and interrogation program managed by [the counterterrorism center] today,” the director of the CIA’s counterterrorism center, Jose Rodriguez, wrote in 2005 in response to a draft of the report.
Jones, the Senate staffer who investigated the CIA’s torture program, said that assertion is untrue.
“While the death of [Rahman] forced CIA management to take a closer look at the program, significant problems persisted,” he said. “For example, more than a year and a half after the death of Gul Rahman, CIA detention site personnel found that they were holding individuals about whom the CIA knew ‘very little.’”
Another new disclosure reveals the authority to use interrogation techniques at COBALT was derived from a cable drafted by a senior CIA operations officer who had interrogated “a particularly obstinate” detainee. The proposed techniques included use of darkness, sleep deprivation, solitary confinement, and noise. But the use of cold temperatures was not addressed. A newly unredacted footnote in the report, however, said the officer was mistaken.
The CIA’s previous assertion that much of the information in the report had been withheld because it contained “operational” details exempt from disclosure, and because it would pose a threat to national security, is undercut by what the CIA has now unredacted. The new details suggest that the so-called intelligence was instead kept secret to conceal embarrassing information.
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COBALT was located north of Kabul and was, prior to the Afghanistan war, a brick factory. The new details in the report show that the operations at COBALT, opened in September 2002 “as a practical response to a clear-cut and urgent operational need,” were a disaster. One person interviewed by the inspector general characterized COBALT as “so many accidents waiting to happen.”
The agency lacked experienced interrogators, so junior officers and contractors went through 10-day interrogation crash courses. At COBALT (and elsewhere) there were frequent mock executions of detainees who were thought to be withholding intelligence. Interrogators “enjoyed the freedom to do what they wanted.” There weren’t any “do’s and dont’s” for interrogations, according to the report.
One CIA junior officer told the inspector general that when it was time to conduct interrogations and interviews of detainees at the prison, the only guidance they received “was how to get in and out of the [black site] securely.”
That Jessen had a role in Rahman’s interrogation was previously known, but details of his role weren’t.
“Jessen estimated that he interrogated Rahman two to four times. He employed an ‘insult slap’ with Rahman once, but determined it was only a minor irritant to Rahman and worthless as a continuing technique,” the report said, noting that Jessen met with the prisoner every day.
Other than a diaper, Rahman was left naked from the waist down; he was often seen shivering.
The psychologist was initially sent to the black site in Afghanistan to handle the “evaluation” of another detainee. “While there, he evaluated several other detainees’ prepared interrogation plans, and forwarded them to [CIA] Headquarters. [Redacted] also asked Jessen to evaluate Rahman, described as a ‘hard case,’” according to the report.
Jessen prepared a psychological assessment of Rahman sometime in November 2002. In a cable, he “noted Rahman’s remarkable physical and psychological resilience and recommended, in part, ‘continued environmental deprivations.’”
He said Rahman “got a lot of attention and became the focus of [redacted] and the [Kabul] Station’s High Value Target cell.” But there was confusion over who was in charge of the detainee; Jessen told the inspector general that “unequivocally” he wasn’t responsible, and that Zirbel was; Zirbel, in turn, said Jessen was.
Upon his arrival at the black site, Rahman was not given a medical examination (nor were other detainees), and one of the three physician’s assistants told the inspector general he was unaware of any “medical contact” with Rahman. The CIA held captive 20 detainees at COBALT, and according to another newly unredacted portion of the report, “approximately a fourth of the prisoners had one or more significant pre-existing medical problems upon” arrival.
Rahman was held in a cell that “had a metal bar above eye level that ran between two walls to which detainees could be secured by their hands in a standing sleep-deprivation position.”
The report said, “The facility’s windows were covered to suppress outside light. Stereo speakers in the cellblock constantly played loud music to thwart any attempt to communicate between detainees,” and the interrogation room was outfitted with two 1,000-watt lights.
Other than a diaper, Rahman was left naked from the waist down for the majority of his nearly monthlong detention; he was often seen shivering. Detainees were left nude from the waist down in order to “break them,” an interrogator told the inspector general.
Rahman’s interrogation sessions were “normally brief,” lasting about 15 minutes — but they were brutal. He was subjected to “the shower from hell,” as one CIA officer described it, which was essentially a freezing-cold shower. When he failed to answer questions to the satisfaction of interrogators, he was “placed back under the cold water by guards.” The cold would render him barely able to speak.
“According to [redacted], the entire process lasted no more than 20 minutes,” the report said. “It was intended to lower Rahman’s resistance and was not for hygienic reasons. At the conclusion of the shower, Rahman was moved to one of the four sleep deprivation cells where he was left shivering for hours or overnight with his hand chained over his head.”
Jessen was present for the cold shower, which he said was used as a “deprivation technique.” Jessen detected that “Rahman was showing the early stages of hypothermia and ordered the guards to give the detainee a blanket.”
The report now reveals that the use of cold as an interrogation technique was unauthorized.
“According to [redacted], cold was not supposed to play a role in the interrogation,” the report said. “Cold was not a technique; it was a change of season.”
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The CIA targeted Rahman for rendition and “enhanced interrogation” “because of his role in Al-Qa’ida.” The report, however, said Rahman wasn’t a member of al-Qaeda, but was instead considered an “al-Qa’ida operative because he assisted the group,” likely through his affiliation with the Afghan political party Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin.
A senior interrogator at the CIA’s counterterrorism center said he did not think Rahman “is truly a [High Value Target] or [a Medium Value Target].”
Yet Rahman was still tortured. And no matter what unauthorized methods Rahman’s interrogators subjected him to, he refused to bow to their demands. The prisoner was “the hardest case in captivity that Jessen had ever observed.”
Watch VICE News’ exclusive 2014 interview with James Mitchell:
“Despite 48 hours of sleep deprivation, auditory overload, total darkness, isolation, a cold shower, and rough treatment, Rahman remains steadfast in maintaining his high-resistance posture and demeanor,” a senior CIA renditions group officer wrote in a cable. The officer added, “Another example of field interrogation using coercive techniques without authorization.”
Jessen sat in on some of the interrogation sessions that Zirbel conducted. Jessen noted, “There was no quick fix to get [Rahman] to cooperate. It would take a long time and it was necessary to keep up the pressure on Rahman and to provide medical assessments.”
Mitchell and Jessen left COBALT days before Rahman’s death. In a November 2002 cable laying out an interrogation plan going forward, Jessen wrote, “It will be important to manage the [proposed interrogation] deprivations so as to allow [Rahman] adequate rest and nourishment so he remains coherent and capable of providing accurate information.” He expected “trained interrogators from Headquarters’ recent training class” to put the plan in place.
That’s not what happened.
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On Nov. 19, 2002, at about 3 p.m., guards brought food to Rahman’s cell. The last meal he’d eaten had been the day before. When the guards entered the cell, he was nude from the waist down. The captive allegedly threatened to kill the guards and proceeded to throw his food, water bottle, and waste bucket at them.
The guards, acting on orders from Zirbel, shackled Rahman to the wall “in a short chain position, which prevents prisoners from standing upright,” a technique taught to them by federal Bureau of Prisons personnel who visited the site to train the guards.
The next morning, Rahman was found dead.
According to newly disclosed details, Rahman’s nude body “was lying on his side; his hands were shackled together as were his feet. His hands were then secured to his feet and his feet were chained to a grate on the wall with a 6-to-12-inch chain.”
An autopsy concluded the cause of Rahman’s death was “likely” hypothermia. The outside temperature had been 31 degrees Fahrenheit. The black site was not insulated.
The autopsy also showed that Rahman’s corpse had several abrasions. The pathologist learned after he returned to CIA headquarters that Rahman endured the abrasions after being subjected to a “hard takedown,” an unauthorized technique used for “shock” and “psychological impact” that “signaled the transition to another phase of interrogation.”
A CIA attorney assigned to the counterterrorism center noted after Rahman’s death that she was not aware of the use of the technique at COBALT.
“She explained that if [redacted] had sought approval to employ the hard takedown, intentionally cold conditions, and the short-chain restraint, she would have responded that they were not available for approval since they did not fit the legal parameters,” the report said. “Although a cold shower for Rahman was an available technique, she would have recommended that it not be approved if [redacted] had provided all the relevant detail including that Rahman’s cell was cold and he was not fully clothed.”
The CIA inspector general referred Rahman’s case — conducting the Rahman investigation is how the inspector general discovered the CIA had a torture program — to the Department of Justice, which declined to prosecute. In 2012, a special prosecutor who was appointed by Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate Rahman’s death and the death of another detainee who died in CIA custody concluded his probe, but Justice again declined to prosecute. In a statement, Holder explained that “the admissible evidence would not be sufficient to obtain and sustain a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt.”
In a statement provided to VICE News in June, CIA spokesperson Ryan Trapani said Rahman’s death “is a lasting mark on the Agency’s record.”