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LDS Members Played Key Roles for Bush Torture Team

December 12, 2014

The just-release Senate torture report is so horrifying that it is difficult to know where to begin. To be sure, shocking revelations about CIA "rectal hydration," rape by broomstick (also known to Fox News and New Yorkers as "Giuliani Time") and other acts of state-sponsored sadism ensure Americans won't soon forget the term "enhanced interrogation techniques" (EIT). As it turns out, EIT isn't the only acronym likely to be permanently associated with the Bush administration's regime of detainee torture. So, too, may LDS. That is, many of the leading legal architects and most bestial practitioners of U.S. torture are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Days Saints.

As the Salt Lake Tribune first fretted in April 2009, "LDS lawyers, psychologists had a hand in torture policies." At the top of that list of Mormon Torquemadas are John "Bruce" Jessen and James Mitchell, the two psychologists who designed and also later helped administer the vicious, violent and virtually worthless torture tactics. Many in the CIA itself worried about their regimen reverse-engineered from the American military's own SERE ("Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape") program. As NBC News reported:

John Rizzo, the acting CIA general counsel who met with the psychologists, wrote in his book, "Company Man," that he found some of what Mitchell and Jessen were recommending "sadistic and terrifying." One technique, he wrote, was "so gruesome that the Justice Department later stopped short of approving it."

Earlier this year, James Mitchell defended himself by declaring, "I'm just a guy who got asked to do something for his country." Asked, that his, and paid over $80 million by the federal government. (Of course, one man's war crime is another man's business model, provided the second man is Mitt Romney.) Drs. Jesson and Mitchell started out as Air Force psychologists whose Spokane, Washington company then made millions from dispensing human misery:

The CIA contractors who helped develop and operate the "enhanced interrogation techniques" that the agency used on terror suspects, including waterboarding, were paid more than $80 million, according to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on the CIA's interrogation program released Tuesday.
The contract was for more than $180 million, but the contractors had only received $81 million when their contract was terminated in 2009.

But word of their pain-for-profit enterprise didn't lead to excommunication from their church, but instead greater esteem. In October 2012--three years after the ABC News segment above--the Spokane Spokesman-Review reported Jessen's elevation within the LDS:

Bruce Jessen was proposed by Spokane Stake President James Lee, or "called" in the terminology of the Mormon faith, to be the bishop of Spokane's 6th Ward, approved by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints hierarchy in Salt Lake City and presented to the congregation on Sunday. He was unanimously accepted by some 200 in attendance, Lee said.
As a bishop - an unpaid, part-time position that usually lasts several years - Jessen will take confessions and help people with their personal problems, Lee said. "They just try to help people with their lives, marriages or finances," he said.

As it turned out, waterboarding was apparently not an ideal enhanced proselytization technique. As Joanna Brooks noted in Religion Dispatches later in October 2012, "Sources have confirmed that Jessen stepped down from the position last Sunday." If LDS wasn't put off by Jessen and Mitchell's past, the APA (the American Psychological Association), was horrified. Last month, APA announced it "will conduct an independent review into whether it colluded with or supported the government's use of torture in the interrogation of prisoners during the Bush administration."
Meanwhile, one of the principal authors of the Bush administration handbook for Inquisitors isn't sitting in a prison cell, but on the bench of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. That's right, Judge Jay Bybee was one of the men who helped President Bush and Vice President Cheney render the Geneva Conventions "quaint." As Steve Sebelius wrote Tuesday in the Las Vegas Journal Review, it is "long past time to fire the torture judge." Working in the Office of Legal Counsel in 2002:

Bybee signed off on memos that authorized agents of the U.S. government to engage in torture, in part by re-defining the term. According to the memos -- drafted by then-Office of Legal Counsel attorney John Yoo -- "torture" means severe pain that rises to the level of a serious physical injury "...such as death, organ failure, or serious impairment of body functions."
And "a defendant must specifically intend to cause prolonged mental harm for the defendant to have committed torture," according to the memo. "Thus, if a defendant had a good faith belief that his actions will not result in prolonged mental harm, he lacks the mental state necessary for his actions to constitute torture."
Waterboarding? No problem. Sleep deprivation? OK. Stress positions? Go for it. And if you go too far? "In that case, we believe that [a person accused of torture] could argue that his actions were justified by the executive branch's constitutional authority to protect the nation from attack."
In these documents lay the seeds of America's torture program.

The outsized Mormon influence on the Bush Torture Team didn't end there. As the Trib's David Irvine lamented back in 2009, "Take Latter-day Saint Timothy E. Flanigan, deputy White House counsel, who, along with David Addington, John Yoo, Alberto Gonzales, and Jim Haynes comprised the secretive "War Council" of lawyers -- a self-appointed group [Jane] Mayer describes as having virtually no experience in law enforcement, military service, counterterrorism or the Muslim world."

Flanigan once told his LDS ward congregation that it was gratifying "to work in a White House where every day was begun with prayer." In 2005, prior to his rejection by the Senate to be Gonzales' deputy attorney general, Flanigan was asked whether waterboarding, mock executions, physical beatings and painful stress positions were off-limits. "[It] depends on the facts and circumstances... ." He went on: "'Inhumane' can't be coherently defined."

As it turns out, his fellow Mormon and 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney couldn't coherently define "inhumane," either. When asked if waterboarding constituted torture, the man who once promised to "double Guantanamo" declared simply, "I don't." (At that same town hall event in October 2011, would-be President Romney announced, "I will not authorize torture.") Romney didn't just have "binders full of women," but position papers on torture, too. And as the New York Times reported:

In a policy proposal drafted by Mitt Romney's advisers in September 2011, Mr. Romney's advisers urge him to "rescind and replace President Obama's executive order" and permit secret "enhanced interrogation techniques against high-value detainees that are safe, legal and effective in generating intelligence to save American lives."

That December, the former bishop and former governor Romney put it this way:

"We'll use enhanced interrogation techniques which go beyond those that are in the military handbook right now."

Now, none of this is to say that either most Mormons or LDS theology itself endorses the vindictive and counterproductive brutality of the Bush torture enthusiasts. Far from it. As Brooks' explains, in 2005 the LDS Church released a statement "condemning inhumane treatment of any person under any circumstance." And as Mormon Studies expert Professor Patrick Mason has told Brooks:

Mormonism has "no systematic theology" on issues like human rights or poverty or war. Its view of morality is "highly individualized."

But while there cannot be guilt by association, there also cannot be silence. (Among potential 2016 GOP White House hopefuls, Mitt Romney among others has yet to weigh in on the Senate Intelligence Committee's report.) American torture was an abomination. Sadly, many of those who enabled and defended it just happen to be prominent members of the fastest-growing faith in the United States. Yet so far, they have faced not punishment but only prosperity.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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