Meet America’s Burke & Hare, The Psychologists Behind CIA Torture

Ed Moloney with a piece from The Broken Elbow on US torture.
Former members of the Provisional IRA will be very familiar with the chilling soubriquet ‘Burke & Hare’, that was applied to the two figures who dominated the IRA’s spy-catching Internal Security Unit during the latter part of the Troubles.
Like the Irish-born grave-robbers of early 19th century Edinburgh in Scotland, the IRA’s Burke & Hare instilled terror wherever they roamed in their mission to catch spies (although as it turned out the British more than the IRA command were often the beneficiaries of their grisly work).
Falling into the hands of the IRA’s Burke & Hare very likely meant being tortured, both mentally and physically, and those unfortunate enough to cross their paths considered themselves lucky to survive the experience. Many didn’t. In the case of one of the pair there is compelling testimony to suggest that he was a psychopath who derived pleasure from his work.
Unsurprisingly, the Senate report on CIA torture, which was partially released yesterday, makes a similar claim about the mental background of those at the cutting edge of the US torture programme: “This group of officers (involved in interrogations) included individuals who, among other issues, had engaged in inappropriate detainee interrogations, had workplace anger management issues, and had reportedly admitted to sexual assault.”
It turns out that the CIA also had its Burke & Hare who were identified in the Senate report as military psychologists who were hired as contractors by the CIA, at a cost of $80 million, to devise, oversee and run the torture programme. They have become symbols of all that is wrong about America’s privatised and corporatised Global War On Terror (GWOT).
Today, courtesy of Science of Us, more details have emerged about these two gentlemen which can be read below:

Meet the Psychologists Who Helped the CIA Torture

The Senate Intelligence Committee’s 500-page executive summary of its report on the CIA’s torture program offers some horrifying details about U.S. treatment of detainees captured in the post-9/11 years. It also highlights and adds some details about the important role two psychologists had in both developing the “enhanced interrogation” program and carrying it out.

Within the report, the duo in question are referred to with the pseudonyms “Grayson Swigert” and “Hammond Dunbar.” But both the
New York Times and NBC News have identified them as Jim Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, two psychologists who have been previously singled out for their roles in developing and legitimizing the torture program.

Both men came from an Air Force background, where they worked on the Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) program in which military personnel are trained to resist enemy questioning by enduring oftentimes brutal mock interrogations. Beyond that, though, they seemed otherwise poorly suited for the task of interrogating al-Qaeda detainees. “Neither psychologist had any experience as an interrogator,” the report notes, “nor did either have specialized knowledge of al-Qa’ida, a background in counterterrorism, or any relevant cultural or linguistic expertise.” Despite their lack of experience in these key areas, Mitchell and Jessen “carried out inherently governmental functions, such as acting as liaison between the CIA and foreign intelligence services, assessing the effectiveness of the interrogation program, and participating in the interrogation of detainees in held in foreign government custody.”

So how did these two men come to play such an outsized role in developing and enacting the CIA’s torture program? Much of the story is captured in a 2009 Times
article by Scott Shane. Shane writes that Mitchell, who after retirement “had started a training company called Knowledge Works” to supplement his income, realized that the post-9/11 military would provide business opportunities for those with his kind of experience and started networking with his contacts to seek them out.

Eventually, Shane writes, Mitchell got himself an audience with the CIA, won some of its members over with his toughness-infused ideas for dealing with terrorists, brought his old friend Jessen onboard, and developed a proposed interrogation method of dealing with al-Qaeda detainees that would grow into the frequently brutal program described in the Senate report summary. Shane writes that Mitchell participated in the 2002 CIA interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, al-Qaeda’s purported third in command, in Thailand:

With the backing of agency headquarters, Dr. Mitchell ordered Mr. Zubaydah stripped, exposed to cold and blasted with rock music to prevent sleep. Not only the F.B.I. agents but also C.I.A. officers at the scene were uneasy about the harsh treatment. Among those questioning the use of physical pressure, according to one official present, were the Thailand station chief, the officer overseeing the jail, a top interrogator and a top agency psychologist.

From there, the business would only grow. “In 2005,” the Senate report states, “the psychologists formed a company specifically for the purpose of conducting their work with the CIA. Shortly thereafter, the CIA outsourced virtually all aspects of the program.” And while the company’s contract was terminated in 2009 amid a growing national outcry over government-sanctioned torture, by then Mitchell and Jessen’s years-long relationship with the CIA had already proven extremely profitable. The Senate report notes:

In 2006, the value of the CIA’s base contract with the company formed by the psychologists with all options exercised was in excess of $180 million; the contractors received $81 million prior to the contract’s termination in 2009. In 2007, the CIA provided a multi-year indemnification agreement to protect the company and its employees from legal liability arising out of the program. The CIA has since paid out more than $1 million pursuant to the agreement.

One of the strangest subplots here is the unwitting role of Martin Seligman, a psychologist viewed as one of the leading modern researchers on human happiness. As the Times reported, Mitchell attended a small gathering at Seligman’s house two months after 9/11 conceived of as a brainstorming session to fight Muslim extremism. There he “introduced himself to Dr. Seligman and said how much he admired the older man’s writing on ‘learned helplessness.’ Dr. Seligman was so struck by Dr. Mitchell’s unreserved praise, he recalled in an interview, that he mentioned it to his wife that night.”

The concept of learned helplessness, a psychological phenomenon in which people who face persistent adversity effectively give up and lose the capacity to attempt to improve their situations — Seligman’s original research on the subject, from the 1960s,
involved shocking dogs — was put to use by Mitchell and Jessen in their dealings with the CIA, and it echoes in the report: “SWIGERT had reviewed research on ‘learned helplessness,’ in which individuals might become passive and depressed in response to adverse or uncontrollable events. He theorized that inducing such a state could encourage a detainee to cooperate and provide information.” Many interrogation experts vehemently disagree: This level of detainee mistreatment, they argue, increases the risk that the subject will simply say whatever the interrogator wants to hear, leading to unreliable intelligence.

Seligman, for his part, has repeatedly expressed sorrow that his research was used in this manner. Reached via email by Science of Us, he responded with a statement that he’s
used previously when questioned about his research’s role in the torture program: “I am grieved and horrified that good science, which has helped so many people overcome depression, may have been used for such bad purposes.”


  1. Too add to the fact, the one Brendan hints at in the book as being a psychopath, is now widely believed to be an informer.
    I last seen him at a function for Moke Mc Mahon, strutting about with Adams and Co.
    Gerry knew he was a psycho, everyone connected to that internal security had to have known.
    Brendan dismissed both of them in disgrace and when his back was turned Adams brought them back.

  2. I am afraid Ed Moloney must be in the thrall of the USA..Coz this CIA spook story is absolutely nothing compared to the school of Americas,
    Where South American death squads got their "education".
    Doubt Ed Moloney could tell his American audience about that..He would soon wear out his welcome in the USA.
    Just like those Irish "academics" who got their degrees, doctorates from British Universities on condition that they spin the British Narrative on the Irish ( case study Ruth "Dishwater Dull" Edwards )
    It's pretty much how it works IMHO.

  3. I'm glad Ed Maloney raised the issue of Burke and Hare in relation to IRA security, because it quite disturbing to think a security department was being run by informers and psychopaths.
    Mc Kee of course, wasn't the only psycho, Scap apparently enjoyed his trade as did others.
    I remember reading in Whitey Bradley's book, when they 'arrested' him they were drunk, they could barely make it to the house they were to 'interrogate' him in.

  4. When you think of the high number of activists and volunteers that didn't make it into their mid-60's succumbing to cancer...

  5. Emmett Grogan has left a new comment on your post "Meet America’s Burke & Hare, The Psychologists Beh...":

    any reason why you did not publish my last comment?

  6. Emmett,

    send it again as it is not in the spam and there is no record of it in the emails which there would be if it arrived. I copied and pasted the email which came through with your query - the same type of one would have come through to us even if the comment had automatically gone to spam.

  7. Mackers, why do you think The Dark chose not to reveal the identity of these two reprobates given that he had no problem naming Adams in relation to operations? Do you know their identity and if so are you willing to expose them for the horrors/war crimes they committed namely torture? If not perhaps some other Quill bloggers will expose their true identities.

    ps Fionnuala do you not mean Mc Gee rather than Mc kee?

  8. Emmett,

    on what grounds do you speak when you claim the Dark didn't name the people he believed to be responsible?

  9. I was of the impression he left out their identity. Has their identity been published and if so who are they?

  10. Emmett,
    Expose them! What good would that do? Who is going to hold them to account. There's no such thing as accountability here.
    Practically the whole of security was rotten and now we know why, so whether I said Mc Gee, Mc Kee or Nanny Mc Fee, no one will be shamed if named, Boston taught us that lesson.

  11. Fionnuala I have waited with baited breath for many many solemn years on someone exposing Nanny Mc fee :) finally the truth outs. I always knew that Nanny mcfee was a cold hearted killer and harlot and so finally, in the comfort of our own homes, friends we can say, in the words of jim royal, "Nanny Mcfee My Arse!" lol

  12. Emmett,
    Never sit with baited breath, it's not good, and to sit for years with breath baited can be counter productive.
    I have no idea who Jim Royal is, therefore I'll have to take your word for it. :(((