Justifying Torture: CIA Psychologist's Book Defends His Role

James Mitchell says he's haunted but has no regrets about waterboarding suspected terrorists.
Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

WASHINGTON ― A former CIA contractor who is being sued for his role in the spy agency’s torture program argues in a forthcoming book that his actions were legal, morally justified and necessary to protect Americans from terrorist attacks.

In “Enhanced Interrogation: Inside the Minds and Motives of the Islamic Terrorists Trying to Destroy America,” James Mitchell and his coauthor, Bill Harlow, deliver a firsthand account of how he joined the CIA’s interrogation program in 2002 as an adviser and eventually became one of the agency’s top interrogators, using techniques now widely recognized as torture against suspected al Qaeda members imprisoned at secret torture locations, known as black sites.

In his book, Mitchell is dismissive of former interrogators who say that building rapport with prisoners is more effective than violent coercion. The CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques,” Mitchell says, saved lives.

Mitchell was one of two psychologists hired by the CIA in 2002 to help develop ways to break down detainees’ ability to resist interrogations. He and his colleague John “Bruce” Jessen worked at the military’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape (SERE) school, where they taught U.S. troops how to endure brutal treatment if they were taken captive by a country that does not adhere to the Geneva Conventions. Under Mitchell and Jessen’s guidance, the CIA used modified SERE techniques against suspected terrorists between 2002 and 2008.

President Barack Obama banned enhanced interrogation techniques in 2009, and the Senate Intelligence Committee released a scathing report on the CIA program, using code names for Mitchell and Jessen, in 2014. Mitchell admitted his role in the program to Vice News in 2014, but his book, which will be released Tuesday, is his comprehensive defense of his work with the CIA and the methods they used.

Mitchell, one of the few public faces of the CIA’s torture program, may appear in court next year in a civil case brought by former CIA black site prisoners. He has a vested interest in convincing readers that he was motivated by a sense of patriotic duty and that the interrogation techniques used by the CIA were less horrifying than described in a 500-page report by its Senate overseers.

Here are the top takeaways:

Mitchell admits to crafting the torture program and personally interrogating prisoners.

Two survivors of the CIA’s torture program and the family of one man who died in CIA custody are suing Mitchell and Jessen for damages for their role in the torture program. The psychologists’ lawyers argued earlier this year that the pair “did not create or establish the CIA enhanced interrogation program; they did not make decisions about Plaintiffs’ capture, treatment, confinement conditions, and interrogations; and they did not perform, supervise or control Plaintiffs’ interrogations.”

The case is scheduled to go to trial next year, and it will be hard for the lawyers to continue making this argument. In his book, Mitchell admits to almost the exact opposite.

“Jose [Rodriguez] not only wanted me to help them craft the program, he wanted me to conduct the interrogations using [enhanced interrogation techniques] myself,” Mitchell writes, referring to the then-head of the CIA’s counterterrorism center.

Throughout the book, Mitchell provides thorough descriptions of how he and Jessen personally interrogated CIA prisoners using techniques such as slamming them into a wall and waterboarding them. Mitchell interrogated “fourteen of the most senior so-called high-value detainees in U.S. custody,” according to his biography in the back of the book.

Mitchell tried to get the Navy to stop using waterboarding in SERE training because it was too brutal.

Defendants of the CIA’s torture program point to the fact that U.S. troops are exposed to the interrogation techniques in SERE training as evidence that the methods aren’t that bad. But before they signed on to work with the CIA, Mitchell and Jessen “spent years trying to get the Navy SERE School to abandon its use of waterboarding not because it didn’t work, but because we thought it was too effective,” Mitchell wrote. “One hundred percent of the warfighters exposed to it in training capitulated even if it cost them their jobs.”

Mitchell and Jessen personally waterboarded Abu Zubaydah, the first prisoner to enter the CIA’s torture program. One waterboarding session caused Zubaydah to throw up his food. Mitchell responded by shortening the period of time of the simulated drowning but made sure to expose him to “one or two more short pours so that he didn’t get the idea that a dramatic display would stop the procedures.”

Mitchell says Zubaydah lost his eye because of a botched plastic surgery.

Even after the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report, which detailed torture techniques the CIA used against Zubaydah, there is no public record of how he lost his left eye.

Mitchell claims that Zubaydah told him during an interrogation that he had plastic surgery so he could avoid capture while traveling. “The Pakistani doctor who did it was, in his words, a ‘quack,’” Mitchell says, and the procedure made him go blind in one eye.

The CIA, which reviewed Mitchell’s book to make sure it didn’t disclose classified information, would not confirm Mitchell’s account of how Zubaydah lost his eye. Joseph Margulies, Zubaydah’s lawyer, also declined to comment.

There were rogue interrogators who used torture techniques they weren’t authorized to use.

Mitchell portrays himself as a cautious interrogator who followed the CIA’s rules. He is extremely critical of another interrogator whom he describes as a rogue operator who used interrogation techniques that went outside of the CIA’s mandate. “I wondered how much adolescent dick checking I’d have to put up with from this guy,” Mitchell writes of their first encounter at the end of 2002.

That interrogator forced Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the alleged plotter of the USS Cole bombing, into positions that caused the prisoner to scream and risked dislocating his shoulders, Mitchell says. He writes that he was surprised when the on-site medical staff failed to intervene.

Mitchell says he later watched the interrogator splash Nashiri with cold water “while using a stiff-bristled brush to scrub his ass and balls and then his mouth.” He says he saw the interrogator blow cigar smoke into Nashiri’s face until he became nauseated.

When Mitchell reported the incident to the chief and deputy chief of the CIA’s Rendition, Detention, and Interrogation Group, the deputy chief called Mitchell a “pussy” and a “bleeding heart liberal who cared more about the feelings of a ‘fucking terrorist’ than about the safety of the American people,” Mitchell writes.

Mitchell believes the media and the Democrats are out to get him.

In his book, Mitchell recalls a conversation he claims to have had with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged planner of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. “He prophetically predicted that the press and some members of my own government would turn on me and Bruce and others like us who took aggressive action to prevent the next 9/11 attack and save American lives,” Mitchell writes.

One of the last chapters of Mitchell’s book, “KSM’s Prophecy Comes True,” refers to that prediction. It details the Obama administration’s investigation into the CIA torture program (which concluded with no charges against anyone involved in the program), the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report, which was shunned by the committee’s Republicans, and the media’s coverage of the events when they “get the torture bug” and “lose all reason.”

Mitchell claims that Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who spearheaded the Senate report on the agency’s torture program, “cherry-picked” documents that made him and other CIA personnel look bad and declined to interview them because it would challenge her narrative.

“There was no cherry-picking of facts,” Feinstein spokesman Tom Mentzer wrote in an email. “Intelligence Committee staff reviewed more than 6.3 million pages of CIA records. The final study is 6,700 pages long and backed up by 38,000 footnotes. It’s an exhaustive chronicle of the detention and interrogation program, and the 500-page executive summary is a broad overview of what is covered in the longer, still-classified study.”

The one good thing about the Senate report, Mitchell acknowledges, is that it allowed him to tell his side of the story for the first time. Ironically, the declassification of the report’s executive summary led the Obama administration to declassify some information about techniques used in the CIA’s interrogation program, making it possible for Mitchell to respond publicly to years’ worth of material that has been written about him.

He doesn’t think the CIA will torture again.

President-elect Donald Trump, who promised on the campaign trail to bring back waterboarding, has since flip-flopped on his support for reinstating torture. Mitchell believes that with the rise of ISIS, the U.S. is in more danger than it was before the Sept. 11 attacks.

Mitchell is still haunted by some of the techniques he used against detainees, he writes, but he doesn’t regret it. He maintains that “enhanced interrogation techniques” produced intelligence that non-coercive forms of interrogation could not ― and believes that bringing back these techniques could save lives.

Even so, he writes, “I have a hard time imagining responsible individuals in the intelligence community queuing up to employ EITs after seeing how those of us who did so after 9/11 were treated.

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