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Why 2 CIA psychologists went along with torture in post 9/11 America

The new U.S. budget law includes a provision which would permit the the transfer and spending of intelligence funds without congressional authorization. | Carolyn Kaster/AP file

The year was 2002, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were fresh in their minds, and they wanted to help their country.

When questioning the ethics of two military psychologists who helped the CIA after 9/11 develop a set of brutal techniques to question terrorist suspects — techniques that have since been condemned as torture — it is important to remember this. We were a nation in trauma and at war, though we were unsure how to fight this war. Lines blurred between right and wrong.

The participation of the two psychologists in acts of torture, though, was condemned as wrong by many Americans even at the time, or, rather, as soon as it became known what was going on. And now we know, from video depositions made public Wednesday by the New York Times, that the psychologists themselves had nagging reservations.


In their depositions, taken in January for a civil suit pressed by the ACLU, the two men continue to justify the techniques they devised, used and taught, such as waterboarding, as safe and effective. But they admit they struggled with the morality of it all.

“Jim and I didn’t want to continue doing what we were doing,” John Bruce Jessen said, referring to himself and the other psychologist, James Mitchell. “We tried to get out several times and they needed us, and we — we kept going.”

Harsh to say now, maybe, but they should have gotten out. The test of one’s character comes not when a decision is easy, but when it’s hard. And, if you get down to it, disavowing the use of torture should never be that hard.

Jessen and Mitchell were asked by the CIA in 2002 to devise “enhanced” interrogation techniques. They suggested such things as sleeping deprivation, shackling a suspect for hours in uncomfortable positions, locking up the suspect in a small box, slamming the suspect against a plywood wall that has a little give, and waterboarding.

Those techniques have since been been banned, and the American Psychological Association now prohibits members from participating in national security interrogations. A Senate Intelligence Committee report in 2014 condemned such techniques as “torture” and said they were ineffective in providing useful intelligence.

So why did Jessen and Mitchell go along?

In part, as they explained in their depositions, because they believed they could use these techniques safely. And in part because they were brow-beaten into it.

Jessen said his CIA superiors “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.”

And, of course, they were just taking orders.

“I was committed to and used to doing what I was ordered to do,” Jessen said. “That’s the way I considered the circumstance.”

Regrettably so.

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