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The CIA’s torture program, as explained by the psychologists who designed it

Images of six men during their testimonies fill the screen
A screenshot from the New York Times report on the filmed depositions by John Jessen and James Mitchell.
Screenshot of the New York Times

The former military psychologists who designed the CIA’s torture program are now describing it in their own words for the first time, reopening one of the grimmest chapters in Washington’s war on terror and providing disturbing details about what was done to detainees in the name of US national security.

The New York Times obtained video footage from depositions of the two psychologists, John Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell. A report by Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter Sheri Fink paints a troubling portrait of two men who say they were uncomfortable with some of what the CIA was asking them to do but continued their work anyway.

The psychologists were speaking in response to a lawsuit filed by two former prisoners and the family of a prisoner who died, none of whom were ever charged with a crime. The American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the lawsuit, said all three men had been subjected to the CIA’s brutal techniques.

The report is particularly striking since we know that the president of the United States has made clear he has no moral objections to the use of torture, believes it generally works, and has only held back from authorizing it because of strong pushback from his national security team.

“Would I feel strongly about waterboarding? As far as I’m concerned, we have to fight fire with fire,” said Donald Trump in a January interview with ABC News.

We already know a lot about the CIA’s interrogation techniques from a 2014 Senate report, which found they were more brutal than had been initially thought and rarely led to much useful intelligence. But this is the first time the key individuals who approved and designed the program are speaking about it on the record.

“This is the first case against the CIA in which victims and survivors have had their day in court,” Steven Watt, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU, said in an interview with Vox.

Here are the most disturbing takeaways from the New York Times report.

The psychologists believe their torture techniques caused no long-term harm

One of the main themes in Mitchell and Jessen’s depositions was their repeated claim that the techniques they designed and taught others to use were mostly painless and caused no long-term harm to the prisoners.

But the former detainees at the heart of the ACLU suit, Suleiman Abdullah Salim and Mohamed Ben Soud, have said the techniques were painful.

In his deposition, a judge asked Salim if he could describe the pain he experienced while being subjected to a stress position, a technique in which the detainees’ wrists were tied together above their heads and they were unable to lean against a wall or lie down.

Salim said, “Maybe I need to tie you here for one hour so you can feel the pain if you want to know the pain.”

He then broke down crying.

The Senate report noted how one detainee was waterboarded 83 times over a period of days. At one point, he was completely unresponsive.

But, using casual and somewhat flippant language, Jessen and Mitchell claimed they didn’t think the techniques would cause long-term trauma. From the New York Times:

In his deposition, Dr. Mitchell, who once said that most people would prefer to have their legs broken than to be waterboarded, disagreed with a lawyer’s reference to the practice as painful. “It sucks, you know. I don’t know that it’s painful,” he said. “I’m using the word distressing.”

Both Salim and Soud suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, according to Watt, and even participating in the trial has been an emotional and difficult experience for the men.

They had literally no problem smashing prisoners into walls

“Walling” is a technique in which prisoners were repeatedly slammed against an ostensibly flexible plywood wall. Jessen said it was “one of the most” effective techniques they used and claimed it did not cause pain.

“It’s discombobulating. It doesn’t hurt you, but it jostles the inner ear, it makes a really loud noise,” he said.

Jessen also described sleep deprivation, a technique in which “the detainee has handcuffs and they’re attached to the tether in a way that they can’t lie down or rest against a wall.”

Salim said the pain he experienced from that technique was excruciating: “A lot of pain in my arms, a lot of pains in my back and around my waist.”

The CIA bullied the two psychologists into continuing the program

Mitchell and Jessen said they wanted to stop or limit the use of waterboarding, but the CIA supervisors bullied them into continuing the program.

When those at the prison wanted to end the waterboarding sessions as no longer useful, C.I.A. supervisors — including Jose Rodriguez, then the head of the agency’s Counterterrorism Center and a witness who testified under oath in the lawsuit — ordered them to continue.

“They kept telling me every day a nuclear bomb was going to be exploded in the United States and that because I had told them to stop, I had lost my nerve and it was going to be my fault if I didn’t continue,” Dr. Jessen testified.

Dr. Mitchell said that the C.I.A. officials told them: “‘You guys have lost your spine.’ I think the word that was actually used is that you guys are pussies. There was going to be another attack in America and the blood of dead civilians are going to be on your hands.”

They were paid $81 million for helping the CIA torture prisoners

Jessen and Mitchell argued that the CIA controlled the program and that they simply worked as contractors. Under the agency’s guidance, the psychologists said they proposed “enhanced interrogation techniques” and trained other people to use them. Over the course of several years, they received $81 million.

Mitchell said he urged the CIA to destroy videotapes showing torture

Even though Mitchell, one of the defendants, claimed the techniques he and Jessen developed caused no harm, he still encouraged the CIA to destroy video footage the agency had made of the interrogations.

He rationalized that decision by saying the videos were too graphic: “I thought they were ugly and they would, you know, potentially endanger our lives by putting our pictures out so that the bad guys could see us.”

The destruction of the tapes was central to investigations conducted by the Justice Department. In 2010, the department ruled that it would not file criminal charges over the destruction of the tapes.

The case filed by the ACLU on behalf of the three former detainees is scheduled for trial on September 5. But according to Watt at the ACLU, there’s already been some success achieved in having the two psychologists and top CIA officials testify under oath.