March 29, 2011
In another exclusive report for Truthout, my friends and colleagues Jason Leopold and Jeff Kaye continue to shine an unerring light on the Bush administration’s torture program (see previous examples here and here), this time focusing on the role played by Bruce Jessen, the Air Force psychologist, who, with his colleague James Mitchell, established the torture program used in the “War on Terror.”
Jessen and Mitchell did this by taking torture techniques taught in US military schools to train US military personnel to resist torture if captured (the program known as SERE — Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape), and reverse engineering them for use in the real-life interrogations of alleged terror suspects. And as the article lays out in clear detail for the first time, the purpose was not just to obtain intelligence, as was always asserted in public by senior officials: “Rather, as Jessen’s notes explain, torture was used to ‘exploit’ detainees, that is, to break them down physically and mentally, in order to get them to ‘collaborate’ with government authorities.”
Jessen’s role in the torture program — and the disgraceful way in which his and Mitchell’s actions went against the advice of most of their colleagues, and were viewed by many as a fundamental betrayal of their professional responsibilities — have been previously established over several years, and are spelled out most clearly in a detailed report on detainee treatment that was issued by the Senate Armed Services Committee in December 2008 (PDF). This devastating document, which lays out a clear chronology explaining how the torture prgram was introduced, and how all dissenting voices were sidelined or silenced or ignored, ought to have provided much of the evidence for the prosecution of George W. Bush and other senior officials in his administration for authorizing the use of torture, had there been the will to do so.
However, as we now know to our disappointment — and to America’s undying shame — there was no political will to pursue those in the Bush adminstration who did all they could to drag America down to the level of the most vilified human rights abusers on earth, and there is still no political will today, with the result that, in those parts of the country and of the American psyche that have been infected by the unchallenged sins of the torturers, the prevailing view of America and its role in the world is now even more feral and cruel than it was under George W. Bush.
Although much of Jessen’s story has been exposed before, Leopold and Kaye shine new light on it through the central involvement in their exposé of retired Air Force Capt. Michael Kearns, a former friend and colleague of Jessen’s who “said he decided to come forward” because he was “outraged that Jessen used their work to help design the Bush administration’s torture program.” In September 2009, Capt. Kearns stumbled upon documents prepared by Jessen 20 years ago, and, as a result, was physically sick when he realized how his former colleague had paved the way for the torture program that, after 9/11, he implemented with James Mitchell, infecting the whole of the United States’ detention policies, from Afghanistan to Iraq, and from Guantánamo to the CIA’s secret prisons, with the “dark side” of the SERE program, reverse engineered and brought to inappropriate life in real-life situations.
I had the pleasure to meet Capt. Kearns and to get to know him over several days last October in Berkeley, where I was a special guest of the organizers of “Berkeley Says No to Torture” Week, and, as well as finding him to be a very sympathetic character, it was also impossible not to be struck by the intensity with which he regarded Jessen’s betrayal of the SERE program, turning something that was designed to prevent harm to US soldiers in the field into something completely different — a template for the torture of foreign prisoners seized in the “War on Terror.”
As he explained to Leopold and Kaye, Jessen’s template for the “full exploitation” of prisoners, rather than just their interrogation, was designed to be used for propaganda purposes, “or other needs [of] the detaining power, such as the recruitment of informers and double agents.” As he added, “Those aspects of the US detainee program have not generally been discussed as part of the torture story in the American press.”
After talking to Capt. Kearns in October, it became apparent — as is also emphasized in Leopold and Kaye’s article — that what Jessen (and Mitchell) did was not only to reverse engineer the techniques for use in the real world, but also to reverse engineer the program’s intent, turning its practioners from careful advisors, trying to mitigate the effects of torture on US personnel, into actual torturers, indistinguishable from the foreign torturers aganst whom the SERE program was designed as a protection. As Capt. Kearns says at the end of Leopold and Kaye’s excellent article, cross-posted below, “Bruce Jessen knew better. His duplicitous act is appalling to me and shall haunt me for the rest of my life.”
Read all posts by Andy Worthington