SSCI Report Reveals CIA Torture Program Originated in Same Department as MKULTRA

Screen capture of James Mitchell from VICE News interview

The release of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) executive summary(PDF) to their report, “Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program,” has rightly gotten a wide amount of press coverage.

The sheer brutality of the program’s use of torture is overwhelming, from the use of forced enemas on detainees — the CIA called it “rectal hydration” and “rectal feeding” — to intense use of solitary confinement, threats to kill prisoners’ families, homicide, and more. Revelations from this report will continue to be reported and absorbed into the world’s understanding of the criminal extent of the U.S. torture program for months or years to come.

But one revelation has gone notably unreported. The man associated with implementing the most brutal part of the interrogation program was drawn out of the same division of the CIA that some decades ago had been responsible for the notorious MKULTRA program. As a CIA history of OTS explains, MKULTRA “involved Agency funding for the testing and use of chemical and biological agents and other means of controlling or modifying human behavior” (p. 19).

OTS Contractor James Mitchell Comes to Thailand

According to the SSCI report, James Mitchell, one of the two CIA contractor psychologists widely associated with the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” torture program, was working for the CIA’s Office of Technical Services (OTS). In late 2001, Mitchell and his former psychologist associate at the military’s Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA), John Bruce Jessen, were “commissioned” by OTS to write a study based on a purported Al Qaeda manual, called the Manchester Manual, after the city in England where the document was discovered.

The paper Mitchell and Jessen produced supposedly addressed countermeasures to interrogation that were discussed in the manual. According to the SSCI investigation, we learn for the first time that Mitchell was working for the CIA’s OTS at the time he was ostensibly recruited or volunteered for the CIA’s new interrogation program.

The Senate report states that Mitchell and Jessen were central in advocating a set of torture techniques that were gathered from the SERE training program for which they used to work at JPRA. SERE stands for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape, and is a long-standing Defense Department program that is meant to prepare military, intelligence, and other certain important government personnel for the rigors of capture and possible torture by a determined and ruthless enemy. But the narrative that Mitchell and Jessen were solely responsible for the program, or that they even originated it, is not totally true.

According to the SSCI report, on or around April 1, 2002, Mitchell was recommended from within OTS for the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, then being touted as a major Al Qaeda figure (he wasn’t):

While Abu Zubaydah was still hospitalized, personnel at CIA Headquarters began discussing how CIA officers would interrogate Abu Zubaydah upon his return to DETENTION SITE GREEN [CIA’s Thailand black site]. The initial CIA interrogation proposal recommended that the interrogators engage with Abu Zubaydah to get him to provide information, and suggested that a “hard approach,” involving foreign government personnel, be taken “only as a last resort.” At a meeting about this proposal, [1-2 words redacted] CTC Legal, [2-3 words redacted] recommended that a psychologist working on contract in the CIA’s Office of Technical Services (OTS), Grayson SWIGERT [James Mitchell], be used by CTC to “provide real-time recommendations to overcome Abu Zubaydah’s “resistance to interrogation.” SWIGERT had come to [1-2 words redacted]’s attention through [2-3 words redacation] who worked in OTS. Shortly thereafter, CIA Headquarters formally proposed that Abu Zubaydah be kept in an all-white room that was lit 24 hours a day, that Abu Zubaydah not be provided any amenities, that his sleep be disrupted, that loud noise be constantly fed into his cell, and that only a small number of people interact with him. CIA records indicate that these proposals were based on the idea that such conditions would lead Abu Zubaydah to develop a sense of “learned helplessness.” CIA Headquarters then sent an interrogation team to Country [one letter redaction, but represents most likely Thailand], including SWIGERT [Mitchell], whose initial role was to consult on the psychological aspects of the interrogation. [pg. 26 of report; footnote notations have been removed from original]

“Novel interrogation methods”

On April 1, 2002, a cable was sent from OTS at the request of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center and ALEC Station, which was the group within CIA supposedly hunting down Osama bin Ladin, discussing the possible use of “novel interrogation methods” on Abu Zubaydah.

The new proposed interrogation strategy suggested “several environmental modifications to create an atmosphere that enhances the strategic interrogation process.” The cable continued, “[t]he deliberate manipulation of the environment is intended to cause psychological disorientation, and reduced psychological wherewithal for the interrogation,” as well as “the deliberate establishment of psychological dependence upon the interrogator,” and “an increased sense of learned helplessness.”

“Learned helplessness” (LH) was a theory associated with a famous American psychologist, Martin Seligman. LH was a lab-derived set of propositions which postulated that when an animal (or human being) is faced with inescapable shock or otherwise unescapable or uncontrolled stress, the ability to cope collapses. LH has long been a theoretical model used to explain clinical depression, for instance.

Seligman is believed to have met with James Mitchell on three occasions. Seligman admits having met both Mitchell and Jessen at a SERE event in San Diego in May 2002. He also confirmed to me in an email that press reports were correct and that he met with Mitchell at Seligman’s home in December 2001. But he denied an account by Georgetown professor Gregg Bloche that he met Mitchell yet again in late March or very early April 2002, only days before Mitchell flew to Thailand for the interrogation/torture of Abu Zubaydah. Seligman said that account, supposedly given to Bloche by CIA psychologist Kirk Hubbard, was “fiction.” Nevertheless, Bloche has never rescinded his story, nor has Hubbard ever disavowed his alleged account, at least publicly.

The meetings with Seligman, in conjunction with the fact Mitchell was brought into the CIA interrogation program as a contractor for OTS, strongly suggests that the implementation of the torture program and use of SERE techniques was not solely the brainchild of James Mitchell, or Mitchell and Jessen together. Instead, it seems more likely, for reasons that will be further explored below, that the program was initiated by OTS itself, and constituted at least in part an experimental program. What exactly the experiment consisted is not totally clear. But it may have involved the use of wireless or other medical devices to measure biological markers of “uncontrollable stress,” in an effort to establish a scientific calibration of torture and overall behavioral or mental control of prisoners. That such a “mind control” effort would originate or be carried out by the same institution that spent millions of dollars on the MKULTRA program is not difficult to believe.

It’s impossible to know if the SSCI report ever mentions Seligman, as the report redacted or used pseudonyms for CIA agents and other personnel.

Where exactly did the EITs originate?

By July 2012, the report goes on to say that Mitchell and other CIA officers “held several meetings at CIA Headquarters to discuss the possible use of ‘novel interrogation methods’ on Abu Zubaydah.” It is worth noting that up to that point, the CIA had used extreme isolation, sensory deprivation, denial of medical treatment and sleep deprivation on Abu Zubaydah. The “enhanced interrogation” torture had not even begun. Meanwhile, while the FBI agents present had complaints about CIA’s approach, they had participated in some of this up to mid-June 2002, when all the interrogators abruptly left, leaving Zubaydah in total isolation for over a month. (One FBI agent, Ali Soufan, had left even earlier, in May, upset over how the CIA was handling the interrogation.)

According to SSCI authors, at these July meetings Mitchell proposed a number of techniques that later became the full “enhanced interrogation program,” including at least one, “mock burial,” that was ultimately rejected. The techniques were drawn from the SERE program Mitchell had worked in for years. But instead of familiarizing students with what such torture should look like, and helping them practice ways to survive or resist such torture, now the techniques would be applied to break down prisoners.

Oddly, the CIA’s 2013 response to the SSCI on these matters, argued the turn towards torture did not originate with Mitchell. This is in contrast to mainstream reports about the origins of the EIT program, but it is consistent with the facts as stated by the SSCI itself in the report’s executive summary.

According to the CIA, “Drs. [SWIGERT] and [DUNBAR] [Mitchell and Jessen] had the closest proximate expertise CIA sought at the beginning of the program, specifically in the area of non-standard means of interrogation. Experts on traditional interrogation methods did not meet this requirement. Non-standard interrogation methodologies were not an area of expertise of CIA officers or of the US Government generally. We believe their expertise was so unique that we would have been derelict had we not sought them out when it became clear that CIA would be heading into the uncharted territory of the program” (italics and emphasis in original).”

The SSCI report editorializes: “As noted above, the CIA did not seek out SWIGERT and DUNBAR after a decision was made to use coercive interrogation techniques; rather, SWIGERT and DUNBAR played a role in convincing the CIA to adopt such a policy.”

Certainly Mitchell and Jessen “played a role,” but that is not the same as originating the program. Indeed, much later in the report, SSCI explains that in the April 1 meeting, the interrogation proposals then under consideration came from Mitchell/SWIGERT “and the CIA OTS Officer who had recommended SWIGERT to [1-2 words redacted].” Mitchell is said to be advocating even then the development of “learned helplessness” in CIA prisoners. (See pp. 463-464).

It is worth repeating: it was CTC and ALEC Station which initiated the request for “novel” techniques from OTS, and later apparently asked for Mitchell to come to Thailand.

I don’t think we know the full story yet. For instance, for some reason, the SSCI report does not include the fact that the OTS was the department of the CIA that sent data on the effects from SERE torture techniques to the Office of Legal Council, which under John Yoo was writing an opinion that would allow the CIA to “legally” use the controversial techniques, which the CIA knew could be considered torture.

OTS, MKULTRA, and SERE Research

OTS’s role in vetting the EITs was mentioned in the CIA’s Inspector General report on the interrogation program. Like other aspects of the torture scandal concerning the OTS division of the CIA, the press has generally ignored this. But this was something I reported on back in 2009, when the IG report was first released.

The fact OTS was involved in vetting the EITs to OLC gains greater significance when you realize that James Mitchell was working with OTS, and that OTS and their contractor Mitchell were intricately involved with both CTC and ALEC Station in creating the torture program.

There’s one final aspect to the OTS angle worth mentioning. OTS apparently told OLC that the SERE techniques would not seriously harm CIA prisoners. But that was certainly wrong. Moreover, it’s highly unlikely OTS didn’t know that.

OTS has been part of the CIA’s Directorate of Science and Technology (DS&T) since the early 1970s. It was transferred from the Directorate of Plans (clandestine operations, renamed around that time, the Directorate of Operations). OTS had earlier gone under other names itself, including Technical Service Staff and Technical Services Division. OTS and its predecessors had been involved in arranging the technical aspect of covert operations, including audio surveillance, forgery, secret writing, spy paraphenalia, sophisticated electronics, and assassination devices.

Then, there was the massive MKULTRA project, which had other names as well, and was coordinated in various ways with similar military programs. MKULTRA had well over a hundred “subprojects,” and contracted with many of the U.S.’s top universities and medical and psychological researchers. (For listing of subprojects see here and here.)

MKULTRA research is probably best known for its use of hallucinogens, like LSD, which were sometimes used on unsuspecting civilians, and resulted in damaged lives and even deaths. Sometimes derided as subject matter for conspiracy theorists, MKULTRA and its assorted programs were all-too-real. While the vast majority of its documentation was destroyed by CIA leaders when the program was exposed in the early 1970s, what we do know is terrifying.

Today, within the DS&T is another shadowy CIA entity, the Intelligence Technology Innovation Center (ITIC). One Yale psychiatric researcher associated with ITIC is Charles A. Morgan, III. Morgan has produced a prodigious amount of research on the effects of “uncontrollable stress.” Many of his research subjects were SERE students at a mock torture camp.

Morgan’s research showed that the debilitating effects of SERE techniques caused stress cortisol levels, according to one Morgan research paper, to soar to “some of the greatest ever documented in humans.” Another study cited “neuroendocrine changes… [that] may have significant implications for subsequent responses to stress,” including massive drops in testosterone levels when exposed to even mock torture. Yet another study showed the effects of dissociation under the stress of even SERE “stress inoculation” mock torture.

Morgan used to deny his CIA links, but lately he has taken to admitting his CIA past. He was interviewed by James Risen for Risen’s new book, Pay Any Price, but told Risen he did not have any associations with interrogations. But he did admit he had met James Mitchell.

It is possible that Mitchell knew of Morgan’s work. It is even possible that Morgan had more to do with the interrogation program than we know. Morgan told Risen that he left the CIA because of a dispute over torture with his colleagues. Morgan has stated his opposition to torture. But Risen never followed up with that part of the story, or at least reported on it in any detail.

Some of the research under MKULTRA and associated programs, like BLUEBIRD or ARTICHOKE, included emphasis on hypnosis, drugs, and sensory deprivation, all techniques that were later incorporated into an early 1960s CIA torture manual, known as KUBARK. The SSCI report mentions KUBARK, and earlier this year, I obtained via FOIA the most complete version of the KUBARK document we currently have.

Risen also never mentioned Morgan’s history of research on SERE. Hence a chance to learn more from Morgan about his own actions and the possible effect or interactions of his work with the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques by the OTS, which is under the same CIA directorate where Morgan worked, was lost, at least for the time being.

“Novel Telemetric Technology”

One possible way OTS could have used Morgan’s work concerns a project he worked on, “The Warfighter’s Stress Response: Telemetric and Noninvasive Assessment.” That study, undertaken in 2001 and 2002, used SERE mock torture students, among others, to develop “novel telemetric technology… for untethered measurements of heart rate variability (HRV).”

Morgan and his co-authors concluded, “The results show that assessment of HRV provides a noninvasive means of evaluating the neural systems intimately involved in the capacity to attend to and respond to a threat. These findings linking HRV to cognitive performance robustly support the utility of HRV in the assessment of human performance.” It is not impossible to imagine that such “novel telemetric technology” would be used to assess the response of CIA prisoners to the experience of torture, or that OTS would be interested in providing and perfecting such technology for the CIA’s clandestine services.

The SSCI report has helped bring the origins of the CIA post-9/11 interrogation/torture program into even sharper focus. But the failure of the press to even notice, with rare exception, the role of OTS, or its history in clandestine actions, including MKULTRA work, means that a full exploration of CIA’s torture program cannot take place.

To watch VICE News’ exclusive interview with James Mitchell, go here.

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