James Mitchell is often referred to as the “architect” of the CIA’s so-called “torture program,” a system developed to question suspected terrorists at “black sites” around the world after 9/11. But to hear Mitchell tell it, what he saw wasn’t much of a system at all — and he certainly wasn’t in charge of it.
As part of his first public testimony before a military commission at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, on Wednesday, Mitchell detailed his frequent clashes with what he called the CIA’s “middle management” over how aggressively to interrogate prisoners. The psychologist and retired Air Force contractor appeared as a witness for the defense at the ongoing trial of five accused al-Qaeda members charged with helping to plan and finance the 2001 tragedy that left nearly 3,000 dead.
The defendants argue the widespread torture they underwent renders their statements to the FBI inadmissible because they were coerced. If Mitchell’s testimony convinces the judge that’s true, he could upend the most significant trial to come out of the military commissions, nearly a decade after 9/11.
In 2002, the CIA asked Mitchell to help question Abu Zubaydah, a suspected al-Qaeda operative captured in Pakistan. President George W. Bush had described Zubaydah as “al-Qaeda’s chief of operations”— a committed, high-ranking member of the organization likely to know nearly everything about its operations. (Later, nearly all of these assumptions proved false.)
At a CIA black site in Thailand, Zubaydah became the first prisoner to undergo so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques,” including waterboarding. Within days, Mitchell and his partner, Bruce Jessen, concluded he had cooperated and given up all his useful information. He only knew about past terror attacks; he could share nothing about future strikes within the United States, the CIA’s major focus.
Mitchell and Jessen, who’s also scheduled to testify later this week, petitioned the higher-ups for permission to stop torturing Zubaydah. The official request to cease waterboarding, according to Mitchell, followed a number of informal appeals. They argued that pushing further could break the law and physically endanger Zubaydah, who’d been shot several times before being captured.
“We don’t want to do this anymore. We’re not going to do this anymore.”
“Essentially we said, ‘We don’t want to do this anymore. We’re not going to do this anymore. If you continue to ask us to do this, we’re going to leave,’” Mitchell said in court Wednesday.
The official response was “let’s stay the course.” From middle management the reply was considerably less amicable, according to Mitchell.
“They said that we were pussies, that we had lost out spines,” he said. They warned of a looming, massive attack, and that Mitchell would have American blood on his hands.
Management also reminded Mitchell he was at a CIA-controlled black site; he could only leave with the agency’s approval. In a tense moment of testimony, Mitchell described threatening to end an interrogation he thought had gotten out of control. When he was overruled, he asked to leave — was told he couldn’t leave. I’m a US citizen, a civilian; you’re holding me against my will in a foreign country, incommunicado,” said Mitchell, tearing up in court.