Torture: On the Wrong Side of History

By John KiriakouJune 14, 2017

Torture: On the Wrong Side of History
I ENCOUNTERED James Mitchell for the first time in early 2002. As a counterterrorism operations officer in the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center (CTC), I had gone to the CTC main office to see a colleague, a CIA psychologist, with whom I was working on an ongoing intelligence operation. When I got to her office, she was cleaning out her desk and putting her belongings in a cardboard box. She was moving to a nearby cubicle.

“What’s going on?” I asked. “They brought in a contractor,” she said. “He must be somebody important to take my office. No contractor gets his own office.” A few minutes later, James Mitchell staked his claim to a small piece of real estate in the Counterterrorism Center.

Mitchell and his cohort, Bruce Jessen, were at the CIA, as most Americans now know, to create and implement a torture program — or, in Mitchell’s vernacular, an “enhanced interrogation program.” Mitchell was a former US Air Force member who went on to earn a PhD in psychology. He and Jessen specialized in interrogation techniques and reverse-engineered the military’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) training to come up with a menu of techniques that could be used against terrorist suspects. This is the service that they proposed to the CIA in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks.

(In the interest of transparency, I gave an interview to ABC News in December 2007 in which I blew the whistle on the CIA’s torture program. I said in that interview that the CIA was torturing its prisoners, that torture was official US government policy, and that the policy had been personally approved by President George W. Bush. The CIA immediately asked the Justice Department to investigate me and, four years later, I was charged with five felonies, including three counts of espionage. Four of the five charges were dropped, and I eventually pleaded guilty to a lesser charge. I stand by my decision to blow the whistle on a program that I believed then — and believe now — to be immoral, unethical, and illegal.)

Mitchell is not an attorney, and apparently did not give any thought to the legality or to the ethical efficacy of his program. The ends seemed to justify the means. And the CIA’s senior leaders, at the helm through the greatest intelligence disaster in American history, ate it up. Mitchell pitched his ideas, and the CIA immediately initiated the approval process through the National Security Council and to the president’s desk to implement the program. Abu Zubaydah, whom the CIA mistakenly believed to be al-Qaeda’s Number Three, would be the guinea pig.

By March 2002, I was the chief of CIA counterterrorism operations in Pakistan. My team had been searching for Abu Zubaydah for six weeks when we found him in an al-Qaeda safe house in Faisalabad, Pakistan. Abu Zubaydah attempted to escape as we broke down the door. As he jumped from the safe house’s roof to a neighboring roof, a Pakistani policeman shot him three times with an AK-47 — in the thigh, the groin, and the stomach. We evacuated him to a nearby Pakistani military hospital.

Abu Zubaydah was only in Pakistan for another 54 hours. In the middle of the night, a CIA jet arrived to take him to his “onward location,” a secret prison where he would eventually be tortured. Three FBI agents and I carried Abu Zubaydah on a gurney out to the plane. Crying and frightened, he asked me to hold his hand. I knew that I was supposed to turn him over to the CIA rendition team on the plane. What I did not know was that Mitchell was on the plane waiting for his charge. It was my second encounter with Mitchell, although it lasted only a few seconds.

Abu Zubaydah’s wounds were so severe that it took months for him to recover enough to be interrogated. That interrogation, done in a secret prison in a location that remains classified, was initially done by FBI agent Ali Soufan, who, over the course of the following six weeks or so, established a rapport with Abu Zubaydah and got him to provide real intelligence on al-Qaeda’s construct.

Mitchell disputes the success of Soufan’s interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, which is documented in declassified FBI reporting, in the CIA Inspector General’s Report of 2005, and in the Senate Torture Report, which relied solely on primary source CIA documentation. But the evidence is clear. Soufan, although progressing slowly, succeeded in getting Abu Zubaydah to talk and to provide actionable intelligence. The CIA objected to the pace, Soufan was pushed aside, Mitchell then used his “techniques” on Abu Zubaydah, and the prisoner clammed up. Soufan was brought back in and the cycle repeated itself.

But progress was still too slow for the CIA. Director George Tenet finally went to President Bush and asked that the CIA be given primacy over Abu Zubaydah’s interrogation. Bush did exactly that. Soufan and his FBI colleagues left the country and Mitchell and his team took over permanently. The torture of Abu Zubaydah had begun. (Incidentally, then-FBI Director Robert Mueller ordered all FBI personnel out of the country, saying that he did not want the Bureau associated in any way with the torture program.)

There are essentially two ways in which to conduct an interrogation. The FBI’s Informed Interrogation Approach calls for the interrogator to be as fully informed on issues important to the interrogation as possible, and then to establish a rapport with the subject. The interrogator builds trust over a period of time and, usually, is able to get the subject to talk and provide actionable information. This has been a proven technique since the FBI interrogated Nazi war criminals in the aftermath of World War II.

The Coercive Interrogation Approach, or Coercive Interrogation Technique, on the other hand, employs the use of force and pain, and the feeling of helplessness or isolation to force the subject to talk to his interrogator. This was Mitchell’s plan.

According to Senator Carl Levin, former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, many of Mitchell’s techniques were originally created by Chinese communists for use against captured American servicemen during the Korean War. But that’s not what’s important. Much of Mitchell’s recent book Enhanced Interrogation (co-written with Bill Harlow) is spent affirming that his techniques work. Yet, the actionable intelligence that Abu Zubaydah provided was collected by Soufan, not Mitchell. Besides, other CIA psychologists in the Agency’s Office of Medical Services (OMS) are adamant that torture doesn’t work. That was documented exhaustively in the Senate Torture Report. According to Senate investigators, those CIA psychologists argued that no actionable intelligence could be gathered through torture and that Abu Zubaydah would tell his interrogators whatever he thought they wanted to hear just to get the torture to stop.

Furthermore, according to the Washington Post, quoting recently declassified CIA documents, the CIA’s own medical and psychological professionals expressed deep concern about putting two outside contractors in charge of a torture program and then allowing them to analyze the efficacy of their own methods. A CIA physician wrote, “Jim and Bob [Mitchell and Jessen] have both shown blatant disregard for the ethics shared by almost all of their colleagues.”

Mitchell’s torture techniques were 10 in number, increasing in severity as they went down the list, culminating in waterboarding. The techniques ranged from a smack across the face to confining the prisoner in a small box for as long as weeks at a time, sleep deprivation for as long as 180 hours, and the “cold cell,” where the prisoner is stripped naked and chained to an eye-bolt in the ceiling and forced to remain in an uncomfortable position while the cell is chilled to 50 degrees and a bucket of ice water is thrown on him hourly by a CIA officer.

What Mitchell doesn’t admit is that prisoners were killed using these techniques. Mitchell’s program ended with waterboarding, the notorious technique where the prisoner is strapped to a board, a cloth is placed over his mouth, and water is poured on his face. This causes a feeling of drowning, and prisoners, including Abu Zubaydah, typically go into convulsions and lose consciousness. CIA documents collected by the Senate Intelligence Committee indicate that Abu Zubaydah not only went into convulsions and passed out, but that his heart stopped beating during a waterboarding session and he had to be revived.

Another problem was that CIA officers did not always adhere strictly to the techniques. At least two prisoners were killed by CIA officers (or persons acting on behalf of the CIA) during interrogations, a thorn in Mitchell’s narrative that he ignores.

Mitchell claims that the post-attack environment was unique in American history, that there was no alternative to implementation of his program, and that enhanced interrogation techniques were new and cutting edge. That is simply not true.

Mitchell also asserts that information obtained through torture “was used to disrupt a second wave of terror attacks aimed at crashing hijacked aircraft into multiple buildings on the West Coast and across the United States,” including the Sears Tower in Chicago, the Library Tower in California, and the Plaza Bank in Seattle. What he doesn’t tell the reader is that this was nothing more than notional talk. There were no actual plots. What we have is Mitchell torturing Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and then KSM saying that he and a group of al-Qaeda fighters were, at some point, sitting around a campfire in Afghanistan and saying, “You know what we should do? We should hijack planes and fly them into buildings on the West Coast. You know what we should do? We should blow up the Brooklyn Bridge.”

But the plans never progressed beyond that. And earlier, all of the actionable intelligence gathered from Abu Zubaydah and reported back through CIA channels had actually been collected by Ali Soufan and the FBI — before Mitchell started torturing anybody.

Investigators for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which Mitchell criticizes harshly throughout Enhanced Interrogation, found that the CIA, at the time of the September 11 attacks, had in place “long-standing formal standards for conducting interrogations.” These standards did not include torture or “enhanced” techniques of any kind.

Indeed, in 1946, the US Government executed Japanese soldiers for waterboarding American prisoners of war. In January 1968, the Washington Post ran a front-page photograph of a US soldier waterboarding a North Vietnamese prisoner. On the same day that the photo was published, then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara ordered an investigation. The soldier was later arrested, charged with torture, tried, and convicted. So: Waterboarding was illegal and punishable by death in 1946. It was illegal in 1968. The law never changed. Mitchell, the CIA, and the Bush administration simply pretended that the issue had never been decided.

And it wasn’t just US law that prohibited what the CIA was about to do. It was also the United Nations. The United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment — of which the United States was the primary author and an original signatory — specifically defined and banned anything approaching “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

When all is said and done, and Mitchell’s obituary is written, he will be the man who created the CIA’s torture program. Try as he might to justify his actions, Mitchell is on the wrong side of history.


John Kiriakou is an American whistleblower, senior research fellow at the University of Kent’s (UK) Conflict Analysis Research Center, and a columnist with Reader Supported News.

LARB Contributor

John Kiriakou is an American whistleblower, senior research fellow at the University of Kent’s (UK) Conflict Analysis Research Center, and a columnist with Reader Supported News. He was a CIA analyst and case officer, senior investigator for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and counterterrorism consultant for ABC News. He was the first US government official to confirm in December 2007 that waterboarding was used to interrogate al-Qaeda prisoners. He was also the first CIA officer to be convicted for passing classified information to a reporter, although the reporter did not publish the name of the operative.


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