The Shamefully Unfinished Story of the CIA Torture Program

James Mitchell, left, and Bruce Jessen, right.

One year ago, the Senate Intelligence Committee released part of its massive report documenting the brutality and lawlessness of the CIA torture program. It exposed the Bush administration’s legal sleight of hand to justify the illegal detention and torture of terror suspects after 9/11. It also exposed the deep complicity of health professionals in this program, despite their ethical duty to “do no harm.”

Yet 12 months later, those who designed, ordered, and carried out this deliberate and systematic effort to destroy human beings remain – shamefully – unaccountable for their crimes. It’s time for that to change. In a report released today, Physicians for Human Rights demands that the torturers be charged, the investigation into their crimes fully disclosed, and redress and reparations brought to their victims.   

The sordid story of the U.S. torture program began in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Under the guise of national security, the government decided that international humanitarian laws and our own strictures against the use of torture did not apply, and the Bush administration turned to military psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen to develop an interrogation program based on the exploitation and abuse of CIA captives.  

Mitchell and Jessen proposed that they could break down detainees so completely through mental and physical cruelty that they would become incapable of resisting interrogators. Human beings need a sense of control over their own bodies and minds and a sense of order or certainty in their lives. Mitchell and Jessen designed techniques calculated to destroy both of these things.

Many have chosen to focus on the graphic details in the Senate torture report and whether they were “authorized.” Yet “authorization” of torture cannot make it lawful. What’s more, a focus on individual techniques risks distracting us from the larger reality: The methodology that Mitchell and Jessen designed went beyond a set of techniques. Complete psychological destruction was the goal, and prolonged isolation, sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation and overload, forced nudity and sexual humiliation, and waterboarding were means to this end.

Harm was consciously embedded in the design and execution of the CIA program, and Mitchell, Jessen, and the other health professionals who participated in this regime betrayed their professional ethics and surrendered their humanity. All health professionals, including mental health specialists, have an ethical duty to do no harm; by their flagrant violation of this fundamental tenet, those who took part in the CIA’s torture program deeply compromised their integrity.

Torture is unequivocally forbidden under U.S. and international law, and all states have an obligation to investigate and prosecute those who commit this crime. Yet the U.S. government’s continued failure to end the impunity it granted to those who ordered, designed, and operationalized the torture program sends a message that torture is not just permitted in certain circumstances — it is actively encouraged.  In fact, the CIA paid Mitchell and Jessen millions for their work designing the torture program: $1 million each, $81 million to their consulting company, and, most tellingly, a legal indemnification agreement worth $5 million.

In September, the ACLU filed a civil suit against Mitchell and Jessen on behalf of three detainees who were subjected to their torture methods. The case is a crucial step in bringing to light much that remains shrouded in secrecy in the name of national security. But civil litigation can never replace full accountability or provide full redress for the victims.

Torture degrades us all. Torture inflicts profound, sometimes irreparable harm to the victims, their families, and communities. It degrades the perpetrators and debases the professionals that participate in or fail to stop the abuses. And it corrupts democratic institutions and processes by destroying confidence in the justice system.

Torture is a universally prohibited crime – one so fundamentally incompatible with the rule of law that inaction is simply not an option. Accountability is critical to obtain justice for the victims, to restore trust in the rule of law, and to pursue a mechanism of prevention so that these human rights violations are not repeated. 

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All this is quite correct in a perfect world!
If, on the other hand, a bomber has knowledge which not only destroys my rights but will also destroy my life, then it is a matter of priority of ethics as to who has the higher rights.


It has been revealed several times that the torture program was not the magic key used to get the information we sought. Every torture program usually begins with the interrogators taking the position they already know what information they wish from the subject, eventually the subject will either die or stumble onto the particular thing the interrogator wanted them to say. Eventually, information that was actually useful was obtained by people who knew more about interrogation than they did about torture. Those who defend torture program would seem to be mostly just wanting to validate their own desire for a target for retribution.

Ruth Rudin

You are in error about torture providing factual information. Anyone who is being tortured will tell the torturer anything that they thing the torturer wants to hear just to make it stop whether it is true or not! As a child I had an altercation with another child who started it. My father did not believe me so he beat me, eventually I confessed to starting the figure t and accepted the punishment just so that HE would stop yelling and hitting me. It is the same for anyone being tortured. The information gained this way is very seldom accurate and worse reinforces the idea that our enemies have a "right" to do this to our troops in return. This puts our troops at serious risk of torture because WE three out the Geneva Convention!


You are defending people who were interrogated by the CIA? That would assume that your defendants are terrorists, or associated there with. Why don't you throw on a turban and start screaming Allah Akbar while you're at it. You should be exported to the Middle East.


I believe you are referring to the Hindu who are mostly from India.

Adrian Russell-Falla

prior 2 comments are pathetic displays of the cowardice & xenophobia which have gripped huge numbers of Americans.

Brien: the hypothetical ticking bomb scenario is a bullshit cliche—the first resort of those who want to defend the routine practice of indefensible actions.

"Anonymous": apparently believes being interrogated equals being convicted under due process… and has zero awareness of the CIA's long criminal history. this authoritarian then parades his naked bigotry and xenophobia.

neither of these idiots has any comprehension or commitment to the principles of the US Constitution. neither understand that they are perfect examples of "good Germans".

"Home of the brave", my eye.

the moral rot that's set into this country starts at the top. US national character (and global reputation) will never be repaired until it initiates warcrimes trials of those who ordered, implemented, and enabled the use of torture after 9/11/2001.

the continuing failure of leadership and political will to do so is a shameful stain on our history; without doubt, the founders would view contemporary behavior of Congress, Administrations and Judiciary with utter revulsion.

meanwhile, the ACLU has never been more vital. I, an immigrant, am a steadfast supporter.


Take two up in a helicopter about 1/2 hour over the ocean. Throw one out and ask the other questions.


CIA officials take a supreme loyalty oath (oath of office) to operate within the boundaries of the U.S. Constitution - which includes complying with the Bill of Rights. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that constitutional rights apply to all persons on U.S. soil and U.S. controlled territories - even non-citizens.

"Proper loyalty" is the most vital requirement for any official that operates with such unchecked secret power. Loyalty is different from simply exploiting loopholes in federal statutes.

If the CIA isn't operating within the their top loyalty oath, we simply have an American version of the Cold War era "East German Stasi" or communist style secret police.

The Stasi's tactics resulted in one of the worst death rates in eastern Europe during the Cold War - primarily using blacklisting and defamation tactics resulting in suicides.

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