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The Impunity Game

A psychologist behind the CIA interrogation program defends his work

“There is something about the [CIA’s] detention and interrogation program that brings out the worst in people,” says Dr. James Mitchell, a psychologist who helped the CIA design and implement so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” (EITs), which have been widely denounced as torture. But Mitchell isn’t talking about how EITs, like waterboarding and stress positions, harm terrorism suspects or haunt the psychologists who’ve administered them. The interrogation program, Mitchell writes, brings out the worst in “the people reporting on it.”

Reporters are some of Mitchell’s most despised antagonists, along with congressional investigators and other critics of the EIT program. For years, he believes, they have unfairly and inaccurately maligned him and his colleagues and, by naming him and publicizing his involvement, have put him in danger of reprisal from jihadist sympathizers. (Today, Mitchell appeared in the safe space of the Wall Street Journal to tout the benefits of waterboarding to incoming defense chief General James Mattis.) Mitchell’s new book, Enhanced Interrogation: Inside the Minds and Motives of the Islamic Terrorists Trying to Destroy America, is an attempt to correct the record and to mount a patriot’s full-throated defense of his CIA-sponsored work.

Mitchell writes that he was drafted to assist his country’s intelligence services in a time of heady crisis. After 9/11, the CIA and its foreign partners were snapping up prisoners all over the world and depositing them at various black sites without any clear plan to interrogate them for the purpose of gleaning useful intelligence. (The CIA hadn’t had an established interrogation program for decades.) The pressure for results was intense, Mitchell writes, with “the ongoing fear of another catastrophic attack looming and the clamor to do anything it took to prevent it.” Mitchell was an experienced psychologist and Air Force veteran affiliated with the Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape program (SERE), which teaches military and intelligence professionals how to resist torture in enemy captivity. He’d already written a paper for the CIA showing how jihadists might be trained to resist interrogation. Soon, he and Bruce Jessen, a fellow psychologist and longtime friend who also worked on SERE, were adapting the group’s techniques in order to interrogate detainees in the emerging war on terror. They eventually came up with a list of ten practices—including waterboarding, slaps, “walling,” and the use of non-poisonous insects—that were sanctioned for use in the program. The techniques were controversial—not least among some FBI agents and CIA personnel detailed to these interrogations. But they came with the approval of lawyers at the CIA and the White House Office of Legal Counsel (via Justice Department official John Yoo’s now-infamous “torture memos”). High-ranking administration officials lent their support, and eventually President Bush weighed in as well, approving the use of more “coercive” techniques on what were termed unlawful enemy combatants, for whom the protections of the Geneva Convention didn’t apply.

Enhanced Interrogation takes readers along with Mitchell and Jessen to shadowy black sites and fetid jail cells, providing a close-in view of interrogations of high-value detainees like Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. The book, which was co-written by Bill Harlow, a former CIA public affairs official who has collaborated with several former agency mandarins (he also helped write the rebuttal to the Senate torture report), has already sparked a good deal of debate and criticism. Lawyers, human rights observers, and national security experts have attacked it as a torture apologia that inaccurately describes the EIT program, overrates its successes, and obscures the terrible abuses that took place. Meanwhile, a lingering retinue of torture defenders seems galvanized, with neoconservatives like Marc Thiessen praising the book as an essential look at how jihadists think and how to fight them. With the election of an exuberantly pro-torture new president, the familiar debate over the American definition, and endorsement, of torture has kicked into gear once more. Mitchell’s book offers a useful insider’s account of how bureaucracies and psychological professionals can make the practice of torture seem justified, routine, and palatable—at least to themselves. But there’s also no denying that the view it offers is ugly to all but the most militant war-on-terror partisans.

Justice in Pantomime

Gul Rahman was a detainee who died in November 2002 at a black site in Afghanistan known as Cobalt. The discussion of his interrogation forms one of the most important sections of Mitchell’s book. Rahman had been subjected to prolonged sleep deprivation, stress positions, cold showers, nudity, and a “rough takedown” in which security personnel tackled him, beat him, and dragged him through a hallway. When Rahman was found dead in his cell, he was naked except for a sweatshirt and he was “short-chained”—a procedure in which a detainee’s hands and legs are shackled, bound together with a short chain, and then shackled to the wall. Blood was leaking from his nose and mouth. The cause of death was believed to be hypothermia—temperatures in the prison, which was also known as the Salt Pit, sometimes dropped below freezing. Citing a CIA memo, the Senate torture report notes, “Other contributing factors were identified as dehydration, lack of food, and immobility due to ‘short chaining.’”

In his book and in a recent follow-up interview, Mitchell said that he and his partner Jessen had nothing to do with Rahman’s death. When Rahman died, “Dr. Jessen and I were nowhere near that place,” Mitchell said. Jessen advised Rahman’s CIA captors on how to approach Rahman’s interrogation (and personally interrogated him), but Mitchell insists that any blame for Rahman’s demise lies elsewhere. “Both of us tried to get medical care for Gul Rahman,” he said. Jessen only observed the rough takedown, Mitchell told me. “When he saw it, he said, ‘You guys need to get permission for this.’” (While Mitchell has been interviewed by some major papers and cable news, Jessen has been virtually silent about his work for the CIA and was not reachable for comment.)

Mitchell writes that Rahman “looked bad”—“not sick so much as just not right”—and that if he thought Rahman were in mortal danger, he would have “pushed harder to get him seen” by medical personnel. Mitchell claims that his and Jessen’s concerns about Rahman’s health were brushed off, that medics refused to treat him, and that he was victimized at the hands of “indigenous guards.” Mitchell also explains that while Rahman was at a CIA black site, the location wasn’t officially part of the interrogation program that he and Jessen had put together. Ultimately, Mitchell said, Rahman “died because the CIA officer there—who wasn’t part of our program—ordered him short-chained” in cold weather while practically nude. (In Mitchell’s account, most abuses and crimes can be traced to personnel who either weren’t part of his particular interrogation program or were affiliated with another military or intelligence service.)

Katherine Hawkins, a senior counsel with The Constitution Project, which conducted a thorough study of the detention program, sees the situation differently. She thinks that Mitchell’s chapter on Rahman seemed “designed to reduce liability”—Mitchell and Jessen are currently being sued by two former detainees and the estate of Gul Rahman. In a phone interview, Hawkins explained her concerns: “Mitchell claims that although he and Jessen were at Cobalt and advised people there on interrogations, that they in no way suggested that enhanced interrogation be used against Rahman, that they actually tried to improve conditions there for detainees. If you read the Senate report, particularly the source documents, that does not ring true.”

The Senate report says that Jessen left the black site several days before Rahman’s death, but he was present for the application of “EITs” and consulted on their use for other prisoners. The report goes on to offer a bleak picture of the conditions at the prison. Most detainees were kept naked, except for a diaper. They could be chained in stress positions for days, were subject to dietary manipulation, and were often kept in darkness in total isolation from other prisoners. Some were kept awake for extended periods by loud music, bright lights, and restraints that forced them to stand; others were left in their cells, unattended for weeks at a time. A CIA interrogator told the agency’s inspector general that detainees “cowered” when their cell doors were opened and that they behaved like kenneled dogs. Others reported a poorly supervised detention facility rife with abusive behavior and unauthorized interrogation techniques. Some CIA personnel questioned the trustworthiness and qualifications of the officer assigned to oversee the prison. Despite Rahman’s death, the officer eventually received a $2,500 cash award for his service.

When reached for comment, Dror Ladin, an ACLU lawyer representing Rahman’s estate in the lawsuit against the former CIA contractors, offered this statement: “Mitchell and Jessen sold the government a bill of goods when they claimed that their pseudo-scientific torture program was safe and necessary. This book is an attempt to sell that same discredited idea to the American public. ‘Enhanced interrogation’ is a euphemism for torture. It was unlawful and immoral when they did it, and it’s unlawful and immoral today.”

When I asked if someone should be punished for Rahman’s death, Mitchell pointed to the investigations conducted by the CIA inspector general and by the Department of Justice. Numerous inquiries, both inside and outside of government, have reviewed the interrogation program, and so far, the only person charged with a crime was a CIA contractor, David Passaro, who beat a detainee to death in Afghanistan and was later convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison. (Former CIA IG John Helgerson reportedly referred eight people to the Justice Department for prosecution over several detainee homicides, but no charges were filed.) And as Mitchell is careful to note, Passaro was not part of his program. If Mitchell and his colleagues were guilty of crimes, he says, surely one of these investigations would have resulted in indictments. “The most hostile Justice Department to date has determined that no crimes were committed,” Mitchell said.

The question of legality is key to Mitchell’s defense of his conduct. He points out that there’s a “legal definition of torture” and government lawyers had offered specific approval of ten EITs that, in their view, didn’t amount to torture. “If the Justice Department decided these things were against the law, we wouldn’t have done them,” Mitchell said. He remarked, a little sardonically, that he had “waterboarded almost as many lawyers” as detainees, and these lawyers approved his program. Any unauthorized behavior, he writes in the book, were exceptions committed by rogue officers falling into “abusive drift.” What Mitchell never considers, of course, is that all of this adds up to a breakdown of justice—a pantomime of the judicial process, in which lawyers and inspectors general contort the law until it supports whichever policy is the order of the day, no matter how blatantly illegal.

Coerced Helplessness

Mitchell insists that members of Congress and other critics in government appreciated his aggressive approach to interrogations until the threat of second wave attacks seemed to recede. At that point, he argues, public scrutiny mounted. “As soon as they were safe,” he said, lawmakers “began to walk that stuff back.” That’s what led to investigations like that by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, led by Senator Diane Feinstein. Mitchell referred to the 6,700-page SSCI report—which has only been released in the form of a redacted executive summary—as “that tapestry of lies.” The scrutiny stemming from the SSCI report, in which Jessen and Mitchell were referred to by pseudonyms, put him and his family in danger, Mitchell said. In Enhanced Interrogation, Mitchell claims that the Senate committee “refused to interview any of the CIA officers or contractors who actually had been involved in the program, including me,” but that’s not true: Mitchell and Jessen were interviewed by the committee’s staff. Both had also briefed members of the committee in the past–during which time, Mitchell notes in his defense, no criticisms were raised. (It’s also worth acknowledging that the CIA didn’t require its staff to cooperate with the committee.)

One enduring source of controversy surrounds the treatment of Abu Zubaydah, the first detainee whom Mitchell and Jessen had subjected to EITs. Zubaydah was originally captured in 2002; after his handlers ferried him among various black sites, he wound up at the prison at Guantanamo Bay, where he’s been kept in isolation over the last ten years. Most of the information about his condition, including his health, is classified. But according to his lawyers and press reports, Zubaydah experiences seizures, cognitive decline, memory loss, and ongoing trauma. He still hasn’t been charged with a crime. At some point during his fourteen-year-long detention, he lost his left eye. The government has attributed it to a “pre-existing condition”; in his book, Mitchell writes that Zubaydah, in attempt to change his identity, received shoddy plastic surgery from a quack doctor, who damaged the eye. Joseph Margulies, Zubaydah’s lawyer, says he can only offer limited background on his client’s condition because so much information about him is classified—a restriction that he calls “extraordinarily frustrating.” But he told me that when a reporter recently mentioned the plastic-surgery theory to explain the loss of Zubaydah’s eye, “That was the first time I’d ever heard that.”

When I mentioned Zubaydah’s ongoing medical problems and asked Mitchell if he thought his EITs had any role in producing this trauma, he said, “I don’t know whether that’s true or not.” Zubaydah, the patient zero of the interrogation program, was waterboarded extensively, chained in stress positions, kept awake for five days at a time, assaulted with loud music, and forced to stand inside a coffin-like box. At first, the CIA believed that Zubaydah was a high-ranking Al-Qaeda member, perhaps number three in the organization. The agency “later concluded that Abu Zubaydah was not a member of al-Qa’ida,” the SSCI executive summary dryly notes. That assessment has been supported by people like Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent who conducted non-coercive interrogations of Zubaydah while he was still hospitalized after his initial capture. In his book, Mitchell paints Soufan as a rube, someone who got in his way and didn’t understand the necessity of using EITs to force detainees into compliance. “Zubaydah led [Soufan] on with tidbits implying he was about to deliver the goods but instead provided information that was vague, superficial, and non-actionable.” Mitchell writes. (Soufan, who has become a vocal critic of torture and CIA conduct, was not available for comment. In his 2011 book, The Black Banners, he claims that his rapport-based interrogation of Zubaydah yielded intelligence—until the CIA intervened and decided to start getting rough with their detainee.)

Mitchell maintains that Zubaydah, while not a member of Al Qaeda, is a terrorist, one who wished to harm the United States. And despite reports to the contrary, he insists that EITs led to the extraction of useful intelligence. As for any lingering aftereffects of Zubaydah’s EIT traumas, “there’s an excellent way for terrorists to avoid that kind of trauma,” Mitchell said. “Stay home and don’t try to kill us.”

Such comments reflect Mitchell’s core faith in the value of EIT detentions–as well as his belief that the detainees he interrogated were hardened terrorists, trained in how to resist interrogation. Frequently in the book, Mitchell argues that non-compliant detainees were using sophisticated resistance techniques—something that he and Jessen examined in their 2002 paper for the CIA—and that they can be made more cooperative through the proper application of EITs. A detainee who hasn’t admitted his membership in a terrorist organization or hasn’t begun to cough up fresh intel simply hasn’t put into the proper state of compliance yet. This thinking has its origins in a psychological concept known as “learned helplessness.” The concept was coined by Dr. Martin Seligman in 1967, after the University of Pennsylvania psychologist conducted an experiment that administered electric shocks to dogs who were restrained. After a certain number of shocks, the dogs would eventually lapse into a state of helplessness and lethargy. Even when the dogs were released from their restraints, they would sit there passively and allow themselves to be shocked.

Mitchell has avoided acknowledging that learned helplessness played a role in the development of his interrogation practices. According to the Senate report, Jessen and Mitchell cited learned helplessness in a pitch memo for their services that came with the subject line, “Qualification to provide mission interrogation consultation.” In his book, Mitchell says that he and Jessen met with Seligman to discuss “learned optimism,” a related concept purporting to show that optimism can be deliberately acquired. The two consultants also invited Seligman to give a talk at a SERE school in San Diego. Seligman did meet with Jessen and Mitchell and later gave a talk to an audience of about 100 SERE personnel. But learned optimism was nowhere on the agenda; instead, he spoke about learned helplessness. (Seligman has said that that was the extent of his interactions with Jessen and Mitchell and that he had no role in advising on interrogations.)

According to an independent report compiled for the American Psychological Association, Seligman also met with other CIA psychologists, including Kirk Hubbard, who later went to work for Mitchell, Jessen, & Associates, the company that the consultants set up to fulfill their $81 million CIA contract for interrogation services. According to the American Psychological Association report on enhanced interrogation, the psychologists at these meetings discussed learned helplessness but not for the purposes of interrogating war-on-terror detainees. But learned helplessness is believed to have provided the pseudo-scientific underpinning for Mitchell and Jessen’s EITs. Through these techniques, they hoped, they would break prisoners’ will to resist. And though they might become depressed and lethargic—the CIA interrogator’s comparison of detainees to kenneled dogs now seems grimly apt—they would be less able to withhold information. The CIA seems to have agreed with the contractors’ pitch: in June 2013, the CIA sent a memo to the Senate intelligence committee in which it defended the psychologists’ qualifications, citing their knowledge of “resistance training, captivity familiarization, and learned helplessness – all of which were relevant to the development of the program.”

Neural Machine Language

In Enhanced Interrogation, Mitchell writes about detainee compliance as if it is something that can be engineered through the careful application of the scientific method. Detainees can be conditioned into compliance, but each requires a different approach. “For some detainees walling was enough but with others we had to try a variety of EITs before we found a combination that was effective,” Mitchell observes. “Some people’s nervous systems are naturally slower to form the learned associations that are the neural machine language of emotional conditioning; that’s just how it is.”

These beliefs—that detainees are specially trained to resist interrogation, that lack of cooperation is merely a psychological defense mechanism, and that compliance can be conditioned through physical force and humiliation—reflect the deep intellectual and moral dysfunction at the heart of the interrogation program. The CIA Inspector General John Helgerson appears to have homed in on the same distemper. His 2004 report warned that interrogators lacked knowledge about the people they were questioning. Typically, the IG report noted, “when a detainee did not respond to a question posed to him, the assumption at [CIA] Headquarters was that the detainee was holding back and knew more; consequently, Headquarters recommended resumption of EITs.”

Joseph Margulies told me that Mitchell “still doesn’t understand the problem. He’s so convinced that there’s a there there that if he’s not getting it, it’s impossible to believe that there’s nothing to be found. It must mean that he needs to ratchet up the procedure even more—which is precisely what went wrong in our client’s case.”

Margulies was referring to the oft-cited dangers of torture: that it produces false confessions, that it spurs a cycle of degrading treatment that can only be stopped when a detainee tells his interrogator what he wants to hear. Abu Zubaydah has said that torture led him to making false confessions, which only enmeshed him deeper in a violent interrogation process, especially when he tried to recant. In this downward spiral of official distrust and operational impunity, there is no room for innocence. When I asked Mitchell if he thought any of the detainees who came through his program might have been innocent or not who they thought they were, he dismissed the notion.  

However, the U.S. government apparently thinks that some detainees are innocent: hundreds of men have been released from CIA and military detention programs. Among them are Suleiman Abdullah Salim and Mohamed Ahmed Ben Soud. The two men were arrested in Somalia and Pakistan, respectively, and rendered to Cobalt, the black site in Afghanistan. Both claim that they were tortured there–and that years of torture followed at other prisons and black sites. Eventually, Ben Soud was released to Libya, his home country, where he was imprisoned for another five years. Salim returned to his native Tanzania, where he’s a fisherman. Both say that they suffer from ongoing physical and psychological problems related to their detentions, and both hold Jessen and Mitchell responsible for designing the interrogation programs that victimized them. (In the civil complaint, Ben Soud claims that at one black site, where he was being subjected to water torture, Mitchell was in the room, apparently supervising.) The ACLU is representing them, along with the Rahman estate, in their lawsuit against Mitchell and Jessen.

“Never heard of them before,” Mitchell said about the men suing him. “I never even knew they existed.” Still, he went on to say he had detailed knowledge of these strangers’ supposed extremist affiliations. Salim, Mitchell said, “was a member of Al Qaeda in East Africa and was involved in” the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. Mitchell said that Ben Soud is also a terrorist. “The problem is that the government provided us with previously classified documents that identified him as one of the leaders of a Libyan terrorist training camp in Afghanistan that was training fighters to fight the Americans,” Mitchell said. In fact, Ben Soud, who was living in exile with his family in Pakistan when he was captured, opposed the Gaddafi regime. After the CIA turned him over to Libyan intelligence, he was imprisoned until Gaddafi was deposed and killed in a violent uprising.

Waterboarding and Worse

Promising to bring back waterboarding and “much worse,” President-elect Donald Trump ran on a platform of vocal support for torture. Mitchell cautions that “waterboarding is not the first or best option” for dealing with detainees but thinks it and other EITs still have their place. “If you catch a person like KSM and you have good intelligence that there’s a catastrophic attack likely to occur, the Army Field Manual is not going to be enough,” he said. “Unless you want to stand around a smoking hole thinking, well, we got the moral high ground.”

Mitchell is retired in Florida, but if there were a credible threat and he were asked to help again with interrogations, he would. “I would do anything that was legal that I could do,” Mitchell said. “I have no interest in doing anything illegal.”

In the meantime, Mitchell is peddling a revanchist message straight out of the panicked early days of the war on terror. He believes that our country is still unsafe, especially because we have walked away from the EIT program. “The Democrats want to rewrite history,” he said, citing the Trumpian bête noire of first resort: political correctness. His book ends with vague and ominous warnings about terrorists trying secure weapons of mass destruction. In his view, the war on terror has been thrust upon the country by America’s historic mission to shore up freedom and democracy abroad. As a result, second-guessing our conduct in prosecuting this crusade amounts to giving comfort to the enemy.

“They can stop it any time they want to,” Mitchell said about the detainees he’s interrogated. “All they need to do is stay home, plant corn, have babies, read the Koran, whatever it is they want to do—other than attack. They’re the ones who declared war on us. They’re the ones who killed thousands of Americans. If [Zubaydah] has a headache now? It’s not an issue I spend a lot of time on.”