This diagram was included in
a paper written by Dr. Bruce Jessen’s
and shows his view of the
conflicting psychological pressures bearing down on a prisoner
who is held captive by an
Dr. Bruce Jessen’s handwritten notes
describe some of the torture techniques that were used to “exploit” “war on
terror” detainees in custody of the CIA and Department of Defense.
Bush administration officials have long asserted that the torture techniques
used on “war on terror” detainees were utilized as a last resort in an
effort to gain actionable intelligence to thwart pending terrorist attacks
against the United States and its interests abroad.
Jason Leopold interviews Jessen’s former SERE
Retired Air Force Capt. Michael Kearns
But the handwritten notes obtained exclusively
by TruthOut drafted two decades ago by Dr. John Bruce Jessen, the
psychologist who was under contract to the CIA and credited as being one of
the architects of the government’s top-secret torture program, tell a
dramatically different story about the reasons detainees were brutalized and
it was not just about obtaining intelligence.
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 notes emphasize how a “detainer” uses
the stresses of detention to produce the appearance of compliance in a
a report released in 2009 by the Senate Armed Services Committee
about the treatment of detainees in U.S. custody said Jessen was the author of
a “Draft Exploitation Plan” presented to the Pentagon in April 2002 that was
implemented at Guantanamo and at prison facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But to what degree is unknown because the document remains classified.
Moreover, the Armed Services Committee’s report noted that torture
techniques approved by the Bush administration were based on survival
training exercises U.S. military personnel were taught by individuals like Jessen if they were captured by an enemy regime and subjected to “illegal
exploitation” in violation of the Geneva Conventions.
Jessen’s notes, prepared for an Air Force survival training course that he
later “reverse engineered” when he helped design the Bush administration’s
torture program, however, go into far greater detail than the Armed Services
Committee’s report in explaining how prisoners would be broken down
physically and psychologically by their captors.
The notes say survival training students could,
“combat interrogation and torture” if they
are captured by an enemy regime by undergoing intense training
exercises, using “cognitive” and “exposure techniques” to develop
The documents stand as the first piece of hard
evidence to surface in nine years that further explains the psychological
aspects of the Bush administration’s torture program and the rationale for
subjecting detainees to so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques.”
Jessen’s notes were provided to TruthOut by retired Air Force Capt.
Kearns, a “master” SERE instructor and
decorated veteran who has previously
held high-ranking positions within the Air Force Headquarters Staff and
Department of Defense (DoD).
Kearns and his boss, Roger Aldrich, the head of the Air Force Intelligence’s
Special Survival Training Program (SSTP), based out of Fairchild Air Force
Base in Spokane, Washington, hired Jessen in May 1989.
Kearns, who was head of operations at SSTP and
trained thousands of service members, said Jessen was brought into the
program due to an increase in the number of new survival training courses
being taught and,
“the fact that it required psychological
expertise on hand in a full-time basis.”
Jessen, then the chief of Psychology Service at the U.S. Air Force Survival
School, immediately started to work directly with Kearns on,
“a new course
for special mission units (SMUs), which had as its goal individual
resistance to terrorist exploitation.”
The course, known as SV-91, was developed for the
Resistance Escape (SERE) branch of the
U.S. Air Force Intelligence Agency,
which acted as the Executive Agent Action Office for the Joint Chiefs of
Jessen’s notes formed the basis for one part of SV-91, “Psychological
Aspects of Detention.”
Capt. Michael Kearns (left)
and Dr. Bruce Jessen
at Fort Bragg’s Nick Rowe
SERE Training Center, 1989
(Photo courtesy of retired
Air Force Capt. Michael Kearns)
Special mission units fall under the guise of
the DoD’s clandestine Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) and engage in
a wide-range of highly classified counterterrorist and covert operations, or
“special missions,” around the world, hundreds of who were personally
trained by Kearns.
The SV-91 course Jessen and Kearns were
developing back in 1989 would later become known as “Special Survival for
Special Mission Units.”
Before the inception of SV-91, the primary SERE course was SV-80, or Basic
Combat Survival School for Resistance to Interrogation, which is where
Jessen formerly worked.
When Jessen was hired to work on SV-91, the vacancy
at SV-80 was filled by psychologist Dr. James Mitchell, who was also
contracted by the CIA to work at the agency’s top-secret black site prisons
in Europe employing SERE torture techniques, such as the controlled drowning
technique know as waterboarding, against detainees.
Listen below to Jason Leopold discuss
this report on The Peter B. Collins show.
While they were still under contract to the CIA,
the two men formed the “consulting” firm
Mitchell, Jessen & Associates in
The “governing persons” of the company included,
Kearns’ former boss, Aldrich
SERE contractor David Tate
Joseph Matarazzo, a former president of
the American Psychological Association
Randall Spivey, the ex-chief of
Operations, Policy and Oversight Division of JPRA
Mitchell, Jessen & Associates’ articles of
incorporation have been “inactive” since October 22, 2009 and the business
is now listed as “dissolved,” according to Washington state’s Secretary of
Lifting the “Veil of
Kearns was one of only two officers within DoD qualified to teach all three
SERE-related courses within SSTP on a worldwide basis, according to a copy
of a 1989 letter written by Aldrich, who nominated Kearns
officer of the
He said he decided to come forward because he is outraged that Jessen used
their work to help design the Bush administration’s torture program.
“I think it’s about time for SERE to come
out from behind the veil of secrecy if we are to progress as a moral
nation of laws,” Kearns said during a wide-ranging interview with
“To take this survival training program and
turn it into some form of nationally sanctioned, purposeful program for
the extraction of information, or to apply exploitation, is in total
contradiction to human morality, and defies basic logic. When I first
learned about interrogation, at basic intelligence training school, I
read about Hans Scharff, a Nazi interrogator who later wrote an article
for Argosy Magazine titled ‘Without Torture.’ That’s what I was taught –
torture doesn’t work.”
What stands out in Jessen’s notes is that he
believed torture was often used to produce false confessions.
That was the end result after one high-value
detainee who was tortured in early 2002 confessed to having information
proving a link between the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda,
according to one former Bush administration official. (see “The
Truth About Richard Bruce Cheney“)
It was later revealed, however, that the prisoner, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi,
had simply provided his captors a false confession so they would stop
torturing him. Jessen appeared to be concerned with protecting the U.S.
military against falling victim to this exact kind of physical and
psychological pressure in a hostile detention environment, recognizing that
it would lead to, among other things, false confessions.
In a paper Jessen wrote accompanying his notes, “Psychological Advances in
Training to Survive Captivity, Interrogation and Torture,” which was
prepared for the symposium, “Advances in Clinical Psychological Support
of National Security Affairs, Operational Problems in the Behavioral
Sciences Course,” he suggested that,
additional “research” should be
undertaken to determine, “the measurability of optimum stress levels in
training students to resist captivity.”
“The avenues appear inexhaustible” for further research in human
exploitation, Jessen wrote.
Such “research” appears to have been the main
underpinning of the Bush administration’s torture program.
The experimental nature of these interrogation
methods used on detainees held at Guantanamo and at CIA black site prisons
have been noted by military and intelligence officials.
The Armed Services Committee report cited a
statement from Col. Britt Mallow, the commander of the Criminal
Investigative Task Force (CITF), who noted that Guantanamo officials Maj.
Gen. Mike Dunleavy and Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller used the term “battle lab”
to describe the facility, meaning,
“that interrogations and other procedures
there were to some degree experimental, and their lessons would benefit
[the Department of Defense] in other places.”
What remains a mystery is why Jessen took a
defensive survival training course and helped turn it into an offensive
TruthOut attempted to reach Jessen over the past two months for comment, but
we were unable to track him down.
Messages left for him at a security firm in
Alexandria, Virginia he has been affiliated with were not returned and phone
numbers listed for him in Spokane were disconnected.
A New Emphasis on
SV-91 was developed to place a new emphasis on terrorism as SERE-related
courses pertaining to the cold war, such as SV-83, Special Survival for
Sensitive Reconnaissance Operations (SRO), whose students flew secret
missions over the Soviet Union, Eastern Bloc, and other communist countries,
were being scaled back.
The official patch and coin of the Special Survival Training Program
courtesy of retired Air Force Capt. Michael Kearns)
SSTP evolved into the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA), the DoD’s
executive agency for SERE training, and was
tapped by DoD General Counsel
William “Jim” Haynes in 2002 to provide the agency with a list of
interrogation techniques and the psychological impact those methods had on
SERE trainees, with the aim of utilizing the same methods for use on
Aldrich was working in a senior capacity at JPRA
when Haynes contacted the agency to inquire about SERE.
The Army also runs a SERE school as does the Navy, which had utilized
waterboarding as a training exercise on Navy SERE students that JPRA
recommended to DoD as one of the torture techniques to use on high-value
Kearns said the value of Jessen’s notes, particularly as they relate to the
psychological aspects of the Bush administration’s torture program, cannot
“The Jessen notes clearly state the totality
of what was being reverse-engineered – not just ‘enhanced interrogation
techniques,’ but an entire program of exploitation of prisoners using
torture as a central pillar,” he said.
“What I think is important to
note, as an ex-SERE Resistance to Interrogation instructor, is the focus
of Jessen’s instruction. It is exploitation, not specifically
“And this is not a picayune issue, because if one were to
‘reverse-engineer’ a course on resistance to exploitation then what one
would get is a plan to exploit prisoners, not interrogate them. The CIA/DoD
torture program appears to have the same goals as the terrorist
organizations or enemy governments for which SV-91 and other SERE
courses were created to defend against: the full exploitation of the
prisoner in his intelligence, propaganda, or other needs held by the
detaining power, such as the recruitment of informers and double agents.
Those aspects of the U.S. detainee program have not generally been
discussed as part of the torture story in the American press.”
Ironically, in late 2001, while the DoD started
to make inquiries about adapting SERE methods for the government’s
interrogation program, Kearns received special permission from the U.S.
government to work as an intelligence officer for the Australian Department
of Defence to teach the Australian Special Air Service (SAS) how to use SERE
techniques to resist interrogation and torture if they were captured by
Australia had been a staunch supporter of the
invasion of Afghanistan and sent troops there in late 2001.
Kearns, who recently waged an unsuccessful Congressional campaign in
Colorado, was working on a spy novel two years ago and dug through boxes of
“unclassified historical materials on intelligence” as part of his research
when he happened to stumble upon Jessen’s notes for SV-91.
He said he was,
“deeply shocked and surprised to see I’d
kept a copy of these handwritten notes as certainly the originals would
have been destroyed (shredded)” once they were typed up and made into
proper course materials.
“I hadn’t seen these notes for over twenty
years,” he said.
“However, I’ll never forget that day in
September 2009 when I discovered them. I instantly felt sick, and
eventually vomited because I felt so badly physically and emotionally
that day knowing that I worked with this person and this was the
material that I believe was ‘reverse-engineered’ and used in part to
design the torture program. When I found the Jessen papers, I made
several copies and sent them to my friends as I thought this could be
the smoking gun, which proves who knew what and when and possibly who
sold a bag of rotten apples to the Bush administration.”
Kearns was, however, aware of the role SERE
played in the torture program before he found Jessen’s notes, and in July
2008, he sent an email to the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Sen.
Carl Levin, who was investigating the issue and offered to share information
with Levin about Jessen and the SERE program in general.
The Michigan Democrat responded to Kearns saying
he was “concerned about this issue” and that he “needed more information on
the subject,” but Levin never followed up when Kearns offered to help.
“I don’t know how it went off the tracks,
but the names of the people who testified at the Senate Armed Services,
Senate Judiciary, and Select Intelligence committees were people I
worked with, and several I supervised,” Kearns said.
“It makes me sick
to know people who knew better allowed this to happen.”
Levin’s office did not return phone calls or
emails for comment.
the report he released in April 2009, “Inquiry Into the Treatment of Detainees in
U.S. Custody,” refers to SV-91.
The report includes a list of acronyms used
throughout the report, one of which is “S-V91,” identified as “the
Department of Defense High Risk Survival Training” course.
But there is no other mention throughout the
report of SV-91 or the term “High Risk Survival Training,” possibly due to
the fact that sections of the report where it is discussed remain
Still, the failure by Levin and his staff to
follow up with Kearns – the key military official who had retained Jessen’s
notes and helped develop the very course those notes were based upon that
was cited in the report – suggests Levin’s investigation is somewhat
Control and Dependence
A copy of the syllabus for SV-91, obtained by TruthOut from another source
who requested anonymity, states that the class was created,
“to provide special training for selected
individuals that will enable them to withstand exploitation methods in
the event of capture during peacetime operations… to cope with such
exploitation and deny their detainers useable information or
Although the syllabus focuses on propaganda and
interrogation for information as the primary means of exploiting prisoners,
Jessen’s notes amplify what was taught to SERE students and later used
against detainees captured after 9/11.
He wrote that a prisoner’s captors seek to
“exploit” the prisoner through control and dependence.
“From the moment you are detained (if some
kind of exploitation is your Detainer’s goal) everything your Detainer
does will be contrived to bring about these factors: CONTROL,
DEPENDENCY, COMPLIANCE AND COOPERATION,” Jessen wrote.
“Your detainer will work to take away your
sense of control. This will be done mostly by removing external control
(i.e., sleep, food, communication, personal routines etc.)…Your detainer
wants you to feel ‘EVERYTHING’ is dependent on him, from the smallest
detail, (food, sleep, human interaction), to your release or your very
life… Your detainer wants you to comply with everything he wishes. He
will attempt to make everything from personal comfort to your release
unavoidably connected to compliance in your mind.”
Jessen wrote that cooperation is the “end goal”
of the detainer, who wants the detainee,
“to see that [the detainer] has ‘total’
control of you because you are completely dependent on him, and thus you
must comply with his wishes. Therefore, it is absolutely inevitable that
you must cooperate with him in some way (propaganda, special favors,
Jessen described the kinds of pressures that
would be exerted on the prisoner to achieve this goal, including “fear of
the unknown, loss of control, dehumanization, isolation,” and use of sensory
deprivation and sensory “flooding.”
He also included “physical” deprivations in his
list of detainer “pressures.”
“Unlike everyday experiences, however, as a
detainee we could be subjected to stressors/coercive pressures which we
cannot completely control,” he wrote.
“If these stressors are
manipulated and increased against us, the cumulative effect can push us
out of the optimum range of functioning. This is what the detainer
wants, to get us ‘off balance.'”
“The Detainer wants us to experience a loss of composure in hopes we can
be manipulated into some kind of collaboration…” Jessen wrote.
is where you are most vulnerable to exploitation. This is where you are
most likely to make mistakes, show emotions, act impulsively, become
discouraged, etc. You are still close enough to being intact that you
would appear convincing and your behavior would appear ‘uncoerced.'”
Kearns said, based on what he has read in
declassified government documents and news reports about the role SERE
played in the Bush administration’s torture program, Jessen clearly
“reverse-engineered” his lesson plan and used resistance methods to abuse
“war on terror” detainees.
The SSTP course was,
“specifically and intentionally designed to
assist American personnel held in hostile detention,” Kearns said.
“not designed for interrogation, and
certainly not torture. We were not interrogators we were ‘role-players’
who introduced enemy exploitation techniques into survival scenarios as
student learning objectives in what could be called Socratic-style
More specifically, resistance techniques
were learned via significant emotional experiences, which were intended
to inculcate long-term valid and reliable survival routines in the
student’s memory. The one rule we had was ‘hands off.’ No (human
intelligence) operator could lay hands on a student in a ‘role play
scenario’ because we knew they could never ‘go there’ in the real
But after Jessen was hired, Kearns contends,
Aldrich immediately trained him to become a mock interrogator using,
“SERE harsh resistance to interrogation
methods even though medical services officers were explicitly excluded
from the ‘laying on’ of hands in [resistance] ‘role-play’ scenarios.”
Aldrich, who now works with the
Personal Protection & Safety in Spokane, did not return calls for comment.
The companion paper Jessen wrote included with his notes, which was also
provided to TruthOut by Kearns, eerily describes the same torturous
interrogation methods U.S. military personnel would face during detention that
Jessen and Mitchell “reverse engineered” a little more than a decade later
and that the CIA and DoD used against detainees.
Indeed, in a subsection of the paper, “Understanding the Prisoner of War
Environment,” Jessen notes how a prisoner will be broken down in an attempt
to get him to “collaborate” with his “detainer.”
“This issue of collaboration is ‘the most
prominent deliberately controlled force against the (prisoner of war),”
“The ability of the (prisoner of war) to successfully
resist collaboration and cope with the obviously severe
approach-avoidance conflict is complicated in a systematic and
calculated way by his captors.
“These complications include: Threats of death, physical pressures
including torture which result in psychological disturbances or
deterioration, inadequate diet and sanitary facilities with constant
debilitation and illness, attacks on the mental health via isolation,
reinforcement of anxieties, sleeplessness, stimulus deprivation or
flooding, disorientation, loss of control both internal and external
locus, direct and indirect attack on the (prisoner of war’s) standards
of honor, faith in himself, his organization, family, country, religion,
or political beliefs… Few seem to be able to hold themselves
completely immune to such rigorous behavior throughout all the
vicissitudes of long captivity. Confronted with these conditions, the
unprepared prisoner of war experiences unmanageable levels of fear and
“Specific (torture resistance) techniques,” Jessen wrote, “taught to and
implemented by the military member in the prisoner of war setting are
classified” and were not discussed in the paper he wrote.
“Resistance Training students must leave training with useful resistance
skills and a clear understanding that they can successfully resist
captivity, interrogation or torture.”
Kearns also declined to cite the specific
interrogation techniques used during SERE training exercises because that
information is still classified.
Nor would he comment as to whether the
interrogations used methods that matched or were similar to those identified
August 2002 torture memo (or download it
from here) prepared by former Justice Department
attorneys John Yoo and Jay Bybee.
However, according to the Senate Armed Services Committee report “SERE
resistance training… was used to inform” Yoo and Bybee’s torture memo,
specifically, nearly a dozen of the brutal techniques detainees were
subjected to, which included waterboarding, sleep deprivation, painful
stress positions, wall slamming and placing detainees in a confined space,
such as a container, where his movement is restricted.
The CIA’s Office of Technical Services told Yoo
and Bybee the SERE techniques used to inform the torture memo were not
harmful, according to declassified government documents.
Many of the “complications,” or torture techniques, Jessen wrote about,
declassified government documents show, became a standard method of
interrogation and torture used against all of the high-value detainees in
custody of the CIA in early 2002, including Abu Zubaydah and self-professed
9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, as well as detainees held at
Guantanamo and prison facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The issue of “collaborating” with one’s detainer, which Jessen noted was the
most important in terms of controlling a prisoner, is a common theme among
the stories of detainees who were tortured and later released from
For example, Mamdouh Habib, an Australian citizen who was rendered to Egypt
and other countries where he was tortured before being sent to Guantanamo,
wrote in his memoir, “My Story: the Tale of a Terrorist Who Wasn’t,” after
he was released without charge, that interrogators at Guantanamo,
“tried to make detainees mistrust one
another so that they would inform on each other during interrogation.”
Binyam Mohamed, am Ethiopian-born British
citizen, who the U.S. rendered to a black site prison in Morocco, said that a
British intelligence informant, a person he knew and who was recruited, came
to him in his Moroccan cell and told him that if he became an intelligence
asset for the British, his torture, which included scalpel cuts to his
penis, would end.
In December 2009, British government officials
released documents that show Mohamed was subjected to SERE torture
techniques during his captivity in the spring of 2002.
Abdul Aziz Naji, an Algerian prisoner at Guantanamo until he was forcibly
repatriated against his wishes to Algeria in July 2010, told an Algerian
“some detainees had been promised to be
granted political asylum opportunity in exchange of [sic] a spying role
within the detention camp.”
Mohamedou Ould Salahi, whose surname is
sometimes spelled “Slahi,” is a Mauritanian who was tortured in Jordan and
Investigative journalist Andy Worthington
reported that Salahi was subjected to,
“prolonged isolation, prolonged sleep
deprivation, beatings, death threats, and threats that his mother would
be brought to Guantanamo and gang-raped” unless he collaborated with his
Salahi finally decided to become an informant
for the U.S. in 2003.
As a result, Salahi was allowed to live in a
special fenced-in compound, with television and refrigerator, allowed to
garden, write and paint,
“separated from other detainees in a cocoon
designed to reward and protect.”
Still, despite collaborating with his detainers,
the U.S. government mounted a vigorous defense against Salahi’s petition for
habeas corpus. His case continues to hang in legal limbo.
Salahi’s fate speaks to the lesson Habib said he
learned at Guantanamo:
“you could never satisfy your interrogator.”
Habib felt informants were never released,
“because the Americans used them against the
Jessen’s and Mitchell’s multimillion dollar
government contract was terminated by CIA Director Leon Panetta in
According to an Associated Press report, the CIA
agreed to pay – to the tune of $5 million – the legal bills incurred by
their consulting firm.
Recently a complaint filed against Mitchell with the Texas State Board of
Examiners of Psychologists by a San Antonio-based psychologist, an attorney
who defended three suspected terrorists imprisoned at Guantanamo and by Zubaydah’s attorney Joseph Margulies.
Their complaint sought to strip Mitchell of his
license to practice psychology for violating the board’s rules as a result
of the hands-on role he played in torturing detainees,
was dismissed due to
what the board said was a lack of evidence. Mitchell, who lives in Florida,
is licensed in Texas. A similar complaint against Jessen may soon be filed
in Idaho, where he is licensed to practice psychology.
Kearns, who took a graduate course in cognitive psychotherapy in 1988 taught
by Jessen, still can’t comprehend what motivated his former colleague to
turn to the “dark side.”
“Bruce Jessen knew better,” Kearns said, who
retired in 1991 and is now working on his Ph.D in educational
psychology. “His duplicitous act is appalling to me and shall haunt me
for the rest of my life.”