SERE insignia

The first installment of this three-part series on the origins of the Mitchell-Jessen torture program concentrated on the insufficiency of reducing our understanding of the spread of torture during the Bush administration to the interventions of just two men. This is essentially the way the story was presented in a 12 August New York Times article by Scott Shane, leaving the question unanswered: how did Mitchell and Jessen get involved in constructing an offensive torture program to begin with?

The documentary record demonstrates that Mitchell and Jessen were not alone in proposing that military survival and resistance (SERE) psychologists and trainers be used to lead interrogations of the flood of prisoners in the new "war on terror." How could Mitchell and Jessen be seen as the prime proponents for the program when in December 2001, according to released materials in the Senate Armed Services Committee’s report on prisoner abuse, the Chief of Staff of the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA), Lt. Col. Dan Baumgartner, wrote to Richard Shiffrin, who worked for Jim Haynes in Don Rumsfeld’s Office of Legal Counsel for the Defense Deparment:

Here’s our spin on exploitation. If you need experts to facilitate this process, we stand ready to assist. There are not many in DoD outside of JPRA that have the level of expertise we do in exploitation and how to resist it.

[JPRA is the umbrella program for the different SERE programs organized by the various military services.]

While the New York Times article makes almost no attempt to link the Mitchell-Jessen episode to the larger spread of torture throughout the U.S. armed forces, or to describe the actual role of the CIA in fostering it, Mitchell and Jessen’s influence is assumed. It is no surprise, and in fact is pointed out by Mr. Shane, that a decision by Attorney General Eric Holder whether to pursue criminal charges for the torture program is pending, and that the CIA contract psychologists are in the crosshairs of such a potential investigation. The latter make uneasy game for the Obama administration’s insistence that those who believed they were acting in good faith upon legal permissions will not be prosecuted. No doubt, Mitchell and Jessen will pursue just such a defense. (See the recent Joby Warrick/Peter Finn article in the Washington Post, which describes the persistent "permissions" for each torture interrogation secured by Abu Zubaydah’s interrogators.)

But worse, perhaps, than the article’s elisions are its misrepresentations. And none stand out more clearly than the relegation of "legendary military survival trainer," Roger L. Aldrich, to that of mere employee of Mitchell, Jessen and Associates (MJA). While mentioning that MJA had five shareholders, "four of them from the military’s SERE program," Scott Shane never mentions that Aldrich was one of the five.

Roger Aldrich was, as Col. Steven M. Kleinman told me in a telephone interview, "one of the founding fathers of the survival program in this country." (Kleinman was also a source for the Shane article.) He fashioned SERE into "the best [survival] program in the world." Kleinman denied any knowledge of Aldrich’s role in the Mitchell-Jessen torture enterprise, nor that of other MJA shareholders, also SERE players or contractors, Randall Spivey and David Ayers.

Yet another insider, who says he has some knowledge of the individuals involved, has indicated that it was Roger Aldrich, Mitchell and Jessen’s superior officer, the man who indeed hired them in the 1990s, who was responsible for the idea of reverse-engineering SERE techniques and contracting out services to the government.

Aldrich was an officer in the Air Force Reserve, who was also civilian chief of the Air Force’s Special Survival Training Program (SSTP), which was later folded into the JPRA agency. From this position, the source says, he hired "many people into lucrative civil service jobs at Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane, Washington, paying from $75K to $150K per year plus fantastic benefits." Aldrich used his influence and position to dole out patronage, and gained a loyal, devoted following. He took Mitchell and Jessen and promoted them. After 9/11, he hatched a scheme with the two men to offer interrogation and training services to the military and CIA for a great deal of money.

Next up in the series, Part Three: Roger Aldrich, the Al Qaeda Manual, and the Origins of Mitchell-Jessen