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Profile: James Elmer Mitchell
James Elmer Mitchell was a participant or observer in the following events:
On September 17, 2001, President Bush gave the CIA broad powers to interrogate prisoners (see September 17, 2001), but the CIA does not have many officers trained in interrogation. As a result, in late 2001 and early 2002, while the CIA waits for high-ranking al-Qaeda leaders to be captured, senior CIA officials begin investigating which interrogation procedures to use. [New York Times, 9/10/2006] The CIA “construct[s] its program in a few harried months by consulting Egyptian and Saudi intelligence officials and copying Soviet interrogation methods long used in training American servicemen to withstand capture.” [New York Times, 10/4/2007] Both Egypt and Saudi Arabia are notorious for their brutal and widespread use of torture. The Soviet interrogation techniques mentioned were designed not to get valuable intelligence, but to generate propaganda by getting captured US soldiers to make statements denouncing the US. The CIA hires two psychologists willing to use the techniques, James Elmer Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, even though the two have no never conducted any real world interrogations and there is no evidence at the time (or later) that the Soviet torture techniques are effective in obtaining valuable intelligence and not just false confessions (see Mid-April 2002). [New York Times, 9/10/2006; New York Times, 10/4/2007] In mid-March 2002, the CIA will draw up a list of ten permissible aggressive interrogation techniques based on the advice from these governments and psychologists (see Mid-March 2002).
Two psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, draft a paper on the use of harsh interrogations to break suspected al-Qaeda terrorists. Mitchell, a retired Air Force psychologist, and Jessen, the senior psychologist in charge of the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA)‘s Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) training program, will soon begin consulting for both the Pentagon and a variety of US intelligence agencies on the harsh methods—torture—they advocate. Jessen proposes an interrogation program similar to those later adopted by the CIA and Pentagon. His proposal recommends creating what he calls an “exploitation facility,” off-limits to outside observers including journalists and representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross, the agency detailed to ensure that captives in the custody of other nations are being treated properly in accordance with the Geneva Conventions. In the “exploitation facility,” interrogators would use such tactics as sleep deprivation, physical violence, and waterboarding to break the resistance of captured terrorism suspects. JPRA officials will later add their own suggestions to Jessen’s initial list, including sexually provocative acts by female interrogators and the use of military dogs. Most of these techniques are considered torture under the Geneva Conventions and the Convention Against Torture. [Washington Post, 4/22/2009]
FBI senior interrogator and al-Qaeda expert Ali Soufan, in conjunction with FBI agent Steve Gaudin, interrogate suspected al-Qaeda operative Abu Zubaida (see March 28, 2002) using traditional non-coercive interrogation methods, while Zubaida is under guard in a secret CIA prison in Thailand. A CIA interrogation team is expected but has not yet arrived, so Soufan and Gaudin who have been nursing his wounds are initially leading his questioning using its typical rapport-building techniques. “We kept him alive,” Soufan will later recall. “It wasn’t easy, he couldn’t drink, he had a fever. I was holding ice to his lips.” At the beginning, Zubaida denies even his identity, calling himself “Daoud;” Soufan, who has pored over the FBI’s files on Zubaida, stuns him by calling him “Hani,” the nickname his mother called him. Soufan and Gaudin, with CIA officials present, elicit what he will later call “important actionable intelligence” from Zubaida. To help get him to talk, the agents bring in a box of audiotapes and claim they contain recordings of his phone conversations. He begins to confess.
Zubaida Reveals KSM Is 9/11 Mastermind - Zubaida tells Soufan that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, and confirms that Mohammed’s alias is “Mukhtar,” a vital fact US intelligence discovered shortly before 9/11 (see August 28, 2001). Soufan shows Zubaida a sheaf of pictures of terror suspects; Zubaida points at Mohammed’s photo and says, “That’s Mukhtar… the one behind 9/11” (see April 2002). Zubaida also tells Soufan about American al-Qaeda operative Jose Padilla (see March 2002 and Mid-April 2002). In 2009, Soufan will write of his interrogations of Zubaida (see April 22, 2009): “This experience fit what I had found throughout my counterterrorism career: traditional interrogation techniques are successful in identifying operatives, uncovering plots and saving lives.” When the CIA begins subjecting Zubaida to “enhanced interrogation tactics” (see Mid-April 2002), Soufan will note that they learn nothing from using those tactics “that wasn’t, or couldn’t have been, gained from regular tactics. In addition, I saw that using these alternative methods on other terrorists backfired on more than a few occasions… The short sightedness behind the use of these techniques ignored the unreliability of the methods, the nature of the threat, the mentality and modus operandi of the terrorists, and due process.” [Vanity Fair, 7/17/2007; Mayer, 2008, pp. 155; New York Times, 4/22/2009; Newsweek, 4/25/2009]
Standing Up to the CIA - The CIA interrogation team members, which includes several private contractors, want to begin using “harsh interrogation tactics” on Zubaida almost as soon as they arrive. The techniques they have in mind include nakedness, exposure to freezing temperatures, and loud music. Soufan objects. He yells at one contractor (whom other sources will later identify as psychologist James Mitchell—see Late 2001-Mid-March 2002, January 2002 and After and Between Mid-April and Mid-May 2002), telling him that what he is doing is wrong, ineffective, and an offense to American values. “I asked [the contractor] if he’d ever interrogated anyone, and he said no,” Soufan will later say. But, Mitchell retorts that his inexperience does not matter. “Science is science,” he says. “This is a behavioral issue.” Instead, Mitchell says, Soufan is the inexperienced one. As Soufan will later recall, “He told me he’s a psychologist and he knows how the human mind works.” During the interrogation process, Soufan finds a dark wooden “confinement box” that the contractor has built for Zubaida. Soufan will later recall that it looked “like a coffin.” (Other sources later say that Mitchell had the box constructed for a “mock burial.”) An enraged Soufan calls Pasquale D’Amuro, the FBI assistant director for counterterrorism. “I swear to God,” he shouts, “I’m going to arrest these guys!” Soufan challenges one CIA official over the agency’s legal authority to torture Zubaida, saying, “We’re the United States of America, and we don’t do that kind of thing.” But the official counters with the assertion that the agency has received approval from the “highest levels” in Washington to use such techniques. The official even shows Soufan a document that the official claims was approved by White House counsel Alberto Gonzales. It is unclear what document the official is referring to.
Ordered Home - In Washington, D’Amuro is disturbed by Soufan’s reports, and tells FBI director Robert Mueller, “Someday, people are going to be sitting in front of green felt tables having to testify about all of this.” Mueller orders Soufan and then Gaudin to return to the US, and later forbids the FBI from taking part in CIA interrogations (see May 13, 2004). [New York Times, 9/10/2006; Newsweek, 4/25/2009]
Disputed Claims of Effectiveness - The New York Times will later note that officials aligned with the FBI tend to think the FBI’s techniques were effective while officials aligned with the CIA tend to think the CIA’s techniques were more effective. [New York Times, 9/10/2006] In 2007, former CIA officer John Kiriakou will make the opposite claim, that FBI techniques were slow and ineffective and CIA techniques were immediately effective. However, Kiriakou led the team that captured Zubaida in Pakistan and does not appear to have traveled with him to Thailand (see December 10, 2007). [ABC News, 12/10/2007; ABC News, 12/10/2007 ]
Press Investigation Finds that FBI Interrogations Effective - In 2007, Vanity Fair will conclude a 10 month investigation comprising 70 interviews, and conclude that the FBI techniques were effective. The writers will later note, “America learned the truth of how 9/11 was organized because a detainee had come to trust his captors after they treated him humanely.” CIA Director George Tenet reportedly is infuriated that the FBI and not the CIA obtained the information and he demands that the CIA team get there immediately. But once the CIA team arrives, they immediately put a stop to the rapport building techniques and instead begin implementing a controversial “psychic demolition” using legally questionable interrogation techniques. Zubaida immediately stops cooperating (see Mid-April 2002). [Vanity Fair, 7/17/2007]
Entity Tags: Steve Gaudin, Vanity Fair, Robert S. Mueller III, James Elmer Mitchell, Jose Padilla, Abu Zubaida, Ali Soufan, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Central Intelligence Agency, George J. Tenet, John Kiriakou, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Pasquale D’Amuro
Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline
Captured al-Qaeda operative Abu Zubaida (see March 28, 2002), after recovering somewhat from three gunshot wounds inflicted during his capture, is transferred to a secret CIA prison in Thailand, presumably the revamped Vietnam War-era base in Udorn. [Weiner, 2007, pp. 297; Washington Post, 4/22/2009] In late 2006, after being transferred to Guantanamo, Zubaida will tell representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross the story of his interrogation in Thailand (see October 6 - December 14, 2006). Zubaida becomes what CIA interrogator John Kiriakou will later call “a test case for an evolving new role… in which the agency was to act as jailer and interrogator of terrorism suspects” (see September 17, 2001).
New Tactics To Be Used - Officials from the military’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) program are involved in Zubaida’s interrogations. SERE officials have prepared a program of so-called “harsh interrogation methods,” many of which are classified as torture under the Geneva Conventions and the Convention Against Torture (see December 2001 and July 2002). A 2009 Senate report (see April 21, 2009) will find: “At some point in the first six months of 2002, JPRA [the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency] assisted with the preparation of a [redacted name], sent to interrogate a high-level al-Qaeda operative.” Further investigation will prove that the person whose name will be redacted is, indeed, Zubaida. According to a June 20, 2002 memo, the SERE officials’ participation in the Zubaida interrogation is “training.” JPRA psychologist Bruce Jessen, one of the authors of the JPRA torture methodology (see January 2002 and After), suggests that “exploitation strategies” be used against Zubaida. Jessen’s collaborator on the torture proposal, James Mitchell, is present for Zubaida’s torture; Mitchell plays a central role in the decision to use what the CIA calls an “increased pressure phase” against Zubaida. [Washington Post, 4/22/2009]
First Weeks Shackled and Sleep-Deprived - Zubaida will begin his narrative after his initial, and successful, interrogation by FBI agents (see Late March through Early June, 2002). He spends the first weeks of his captivity shackled to a chair, denied solid food, and kept awake. In Zubaida’s words: “I woke up, naked, strapped to a bed, in a very white room. The room measured approximately [13 feet by 13 feet]. The room had three solid walls, with the fourth wall consisting of metal bars separating it from a larger room. I am not sure how long I remained in the bed. After some time, I think it was several days, but can’t remember exactly, I was transferred to a chair where I was kept, shackled by [the] hands and feet for what I think was the next two to three weeks. During this time I developed blisters on the underside of my legs due to the constant sitting. I was only allowed to get up from the chair to go [to] the toilet, which consisted of a bucket. Water for cleaning myself was provided in a plastic bottle. I was given no solid food during the first two or three weeks, while sitting on the chair. I was only given Ensure [a nutrient supplement] and water to drink. At first the Ensure made me vomit, but this became less with time. The cell and room were air-conditioned and were very cold. Very loud, shouting type music was constantly playing. It kept repeating about every 15 minutes, 24 hours a day. Sometimes the music stopped and was replaced by a loud hissing or crackling noise. The guards were American, but wore masks to conceal their faces. My interrogators did not wear masks. During this first two to three week period I was questioned for about one to two hours each day. American interrogators would come to the room and speak to me through the bars of the cell. During the questioning the music was switched off, but was then put back on again afterwards. I could not sleep at all for the first two to three weeks. If I started to fall asleep one of the guards would come and spray water in my face.” In 2009, author Mark Danner will write: “One can translate these procedures into terms of art: ‘Change of Scenery Down.’ ‘Removal of Clothing.’ ‘Use of Stress Positions.’ ‘Dietary Manipulation.’ ‘Environmental Manipulation.’ ‘Sleep Adjustment.’ ‘Isolation.’ ‘Sleep Deprivation.’ ‘Use of Noise to Induce Stress.’ All these terms and many others can be found, for example, in documents associated with the debate about interrogation and ‘counter-resistance’ carried on by Pentagon and Justice Department officials beginning in 2002. Here, however, we find a different standard: the [proposed regulations say], for example, that ‘Sleep Deprivation’ is ‘not to exceed four days in succession,’ that ‘Dietary Manipulation’ should include ‘no intended deprivation of food or water,’ that ‘removal of clothing,” while ‘creating a feeling of helplessness and dependence,’ must be ‘monitored to ensure the environmental conditions are such that this technique does not injure the detainee.’ Here we are in a different place.”
CIA Team Moves In - The first weeks of Zubaida’s captivity are maintained by a small team of FBI agents and interrogators, but soon a team from the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center takes over. As Kiriakou will later recall: “We had these trained interrogators who were sent to his location to use the enhanced techniques as necessary to get him to open up, and to report some threat information.… These enhanced techniques included everything from what was called an attention shake, where you grab the person by their lapels and shake them, all the way up to the other end, which is waterboarding.” After the initial period of captivity, Zubaida is allowed to sleep with less interruption, stretched out naked and shackled on the bare floor. He is also given solid food for the first time in weeks—rice. A female doctor examines him and asks why he is still naked; he is, he will recall, “provided with orange clothes to wear.” The clothes only last a day, though: “[G]uards came into my cell,” Zubaida will recall. “They told me to stand up and raise my arms above my head. They then cut the clothes off of me so that I was again naked and put me back on the chair for several days. I tried to sleep on the chair, but was again kept awake by the guards spraying water in my face.”
Alternating Harsh and Lenient Treatments - For the next few weeks, Zubaida’s treatment veers from abusive to almost lenient. Mostly he is kept naked and confined to his cell, often suffering from intense cold in the frigid air-conditioned environment. One official later tells the ICRC that often he “seemed to turn blue.” Clothing is provided, then taken away. Zubaida will tell ICRC officials: “When my interrogators had the impression that I was cooperating and providing the information they required, the clothes were given back to me. When they felt I was being less cooperative the clothes were again removed and I was again put back on the chair.” For a time he is given a mattress to sleep on; sometimes he is “allowed some tissue paper to use when going to toilet on the bucket.” A month goes by with no interrogations. He will recall: “My cell was still very cold and the loud music no longer played but there was a constant loud hissing or crackling noise, which played 24 hours a day. I tried to block out the noise by putting tissue in my ears.” Then, “about two and half or three months after I arrived in this place, the interrogation began again, but with more intensity than before.” Danner will write that he isn’t sure if the wild swings in procedures are intentional, meant to keep Zubaida off-guard, or, as he will write, “resulted from disputes about strategy among the interrogators, who were relying on a hastily assembled ‘alternative set of procedures’ that had been improvised from various sources, including scientists and psychiatrists within the intelligence community, experts from other, ‘friendly’ governments, and consultants who had worked with the US military and now ‘reverse-engineered’ the resistance training taught to American elite forces to help them withstand interrogation after capture.” Danner notes that some CIA documents going back to the 1960s advocate subjecting the captive to sensory deprivation and disorientation, and instilling feelings of guilt, shame, and helplessness. The old CIA documents say that captives should be kept in a state of “debility-dependence-dread.” [New York Review of Books, 3/15/2009]
Justice Department's 'Ticking Bomb' Scenario - The August 2002 “golden shield” memo from the Justice Department (see August 1, 2002) will use what is often called the “ticking bomg scenario”—the supposition that a terror attack is imminent and only torture can extract time-critical information from a terrorist detainee to give US officials a chance to stop the attack—to justify Zubaida’s torture. According to CIA reports, Zubaida has information regarding “terrorist networks in the United States” and “plans to conduct attacks within the United States or against our interests overseas.” But Brent Mickum, who later becomes one of Zubaida’s attorneys, will say that he believes the Justice Department memo retroactively approved coercive tactics that had already been used. “If torture occurred before the memo was written, it’s not worth the paper it’s written on, and the writing of the memo is potentially criminal,” Mickum will note. [Washington Post, 4/22/2009]
Interrogations Continue in June - Sometime in June, Zubaida will once again be interrogated (see June 2002).
Entity Tags: Mark Danner, John Kiriakou, James Elmer Mitchell, Bruce Jessen, Al-Qaeda, Abu Zubaida, Bush administration (43), Central Intelligence Agency, Convention Against Torture, George Brent Mickum, Geneva Conventions, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Joint Personnel Recovery Agency, International Committee of the Red Cross
Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline
The law offices of Mitchell, Jessen and Associates are in this American Legion Building in Spokane, Washington. [Source: Brian Plonka / Spokesman-Review]The FBI has been interrogating captured al-Qaeda leader Abu Zubaida at a secret CIA prison in Thailand and learning valuable intelligence information (see Late March through Early June, 2002). However, the prison is controlled by the CIA and the FBI is only in control until a team of CIA interrogators arrives, which apparently happens around mid-April 2002. The FBI has been using humane rapport-building techniques, but the new CIA team immediately abandons this approach. The team is lead by psychologist James Mitchell, who runs a consulting business in Washington State with psychologist Bruce Jessen (see January 2002 and After). Both worked in SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape), a classified US military training program which trains soldiers to endure being tortured by the enemy. Mitchell and Jessen reverse-engineered the techniques inflicted in the SERE training so they could be used on Zubaida and other detainees. [Vanity Fair, 7/17/2007] SERE trainees are subjected to “waterboarding (simulated drowning), sleep deprivation, isolation, exposure to temperature extremes, enclosure in tiny spaces, bombardment with agonizing sounds, and religious and sexual humiliation.” One European official knowledgeable about the SERE program will say of Mitchell and Jessen: “They were very arrogant, and pro-torture.… They sought to render the detainees vulnerable—to break down all of their senses.” The use of these psychologists also helps to put a veneer of scientific respectability over the torture techniques favored by top officials. One former US intelligence community adviser will later say: “Clearly, some senior people felt they needed a theory to justify what they were doing. You can’t just say, ‘We want to do what Egypt’s doing.’ When the lawyers asked what their basis was, they could say, ‘We have PhD’s who have these theories.’” [New Yorker, 8/6/2007] But Mitchell and Jessen have no experience in conducting interrogations and have no proof that their techniques are effective. In fact, the SERE techniques are based on Communist interrogation techniques from the Korean War, designed not to get valuable intelligence but to generate propaganda by getting US prisoners to make statements denouncing the US (see December 2001). Air Force Reserve colonel Steve Kleinman, an expert in human intelligence operations, will later say he finds it astonishing the CIA “chose two clinical psychologists who had no intelligence background whatsoever, who had never conducted an interrogation… to do something that had never been proven in the real world.” FBI official Michael Rolince calls their techniques “voodoo science.” In 2006, a report by the best-known interrogation experts in the US will conclude that there is no evidence that reverse-engineered SERE tactics are effective in obtaining useful intelligence. But nonetheless, from this time forward Zubaida’s interrogations will be based on these techniques. [Vanity Fair, 7/17/2007]
Pentagon psychologist Bruce Jessen, who serves as the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA)‘s senior psychologist for its SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) training program, releases an internal draft report for reverse-engineering SERE training techniques to be used against enemy detainees. SERE training teaches soldiers to resist torture inflicted on them by enemy captors. Jessen’s report, a follow-up to a previous report authored by him and fellow military psychologist James Mitchell (see January 2002 and After), calls for the creation of a secret “exploitation facility” that would be off-limits to oversight bodies such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, and would be kept clear of reporters. Jessen’s plan also describes the fundamentals of an “enhanced interrogation” methodology. According to a 2009 press report, it advocated techniques “strikingly similar to those that later surfaced at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere: nudity, stress positions, hoods, treatment like animals, sleep disruption, loud music and flashing lights, and exposure to extreme temperatures.” The techniques also include waterboarding, used 266 times against two high-value al-Qaeda detainees (see April 16, 2009 and April 18, 2009). The report notes: “Typically, those who play the part of interrogators in SERE school neither are trained interrogators nor are they qualified to be. Their job is to train our personnel to resist providing reliable information to our enemies.” However, senior JPRA and Pentagon officials will ignore Jessen’s caveats and authorize the application of SERE methods to the interrogations of al-Qaeda detainees (see April - June 2002). Three months later, JPRA will begin training CIA agents in SERE-derived techniques (see July 2002), including a two-day session on waterboarding (see July 1-2, 2002). Shortly after the training sessions, Pentagon general counsel William Haynes will ask JPRA for more information on SERE techniques. Haynes’s deputy, Richard Shiffrin, will later confirm “that a purpose of the request was to ‘reverse engineer’ the techniques.” [Agence France-Presse, 4/22/2009] In 2009, the press learns that Mitchell and Jessen are paid $1,000 a day to train military interrogators (see April 30, 2009).
R. Scott Shumate. [Source: American Psychological Association]Held in a secret CIA prison in Thailand, al-Qaeda leader Abu Zubaida is interrogated by a new team of CIA interrogators led by James Elmer Mitchell and Dr. R. Scott Shumate. Mitchell is a psychologist contracted to the CIA, while Shumate is the chief operational psychologist for the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center. Mitchell wants to use torture techniques based on reverse-engineering SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape), a class he has taught that trains US soldiers to resist torture by the enemy. But the techniques have never been tried before and studies will later determine they are not effective in obtaining good intelligence (see Mid-April 2002). Zubaida is resistant to Mitchell’s new aggressive techniques and refuses to talk. Mitchell concludes Zubaida will only talk when he has been rendered completely helpless and dependent, so the CIA begins building a coffin to bury Zubaida alive in but not actually kill him. This creates an intense controversy over the legality of such a technique, and ultimately it appears the burying alive is never carried out. Both domestic and international law clearly prohibits death threats and simulated killings. However, a number of aggressive techniques have just been approved at the highest political level (see Mid-March 2002), so opponents to these techniques are mostly powerless. Shumate is so strongly opposed to these techniques that he leaves in disgust. He will later tell his associates that it was a mistake for the CIA to hire Mitchell. But with Shumate gone, Mitchell is now free to use more extreme methods, and the torture of Zubaida begins in earnest around the middle of May. [Vanity Fair, 7/17/2007] Around this time, the FBI also washes its hands of the controversial techniques and withdraws its personnel from the secret prison (see Mid-April-May 2002).
Abu Zubaida. [Source: New York Times]The CIA begins interrogating captured al-Qaeda leader Abu Zubaida (see March 28, 2002), using some aggressive techniques that are commonly considered to be torture. Zubaida was initially interrogated by the FBI using traditional rapport-building techniques, and many believe the FBI was obtaining valuable information (see Late March through Early June, 2002). But he is being held at a secret CIA prison in Thailand (see March 2002), and soon a new CIA team comes in and takes over (see Mid-April 2002). This team, led by controversial psychologist James Elmer Mitchell, uses such extreme methods that the FBI completely withdraws its personnel (see Mid-April-May 2002), and even some CIA personnel leave in disgust (see Between Mid-April and Mid-May 2002). By mid-May, Mitchell’s detractors are gone and the gunshot wounds Zubaida sustained during his capture have stabilized, so Mitchell begins applying even more aggressive interrogation techniques. [Posner, 2003, pp. 186, 191; Suskind, 2006, pp. 110-115] According to one psychologist involved in Zubaida’s interrogation, Mitchell argues that Zubaida needs to be reduced to a state of “learned helplessness.” Reserve Air Force Colonel Steve Kleinman, an experienced interrogator very familiar with Mitchell, will later say that “learned helplessness was his whole paradigm.… It starts with isolation. Then they eliminate the prisoners’ ability to forecast the future—when their next meal is, when they can go to the bathroom. It creates dread and dependency. It was the KGB model. But the KGB used it to get people who had turned against the state to confess falsely. The KGB wasn’t after intelligence.” [New Yorker, 8/6/2007] Journalist Ron Suskind will later claim: “According to CIA sources, [Zubaida] was waterboarded, a technique in which a captive’s face is covered with a towel as water is poured atop, creating the sensation of drowning. He was beaten, though not in a way to worsen his injuries. He was repeatedly threatened, and made certain of his impending death. His medication was withheld. He was bombarded with deafening, continuous noise and harsh lights.” [Suskind, 2006, pp. 115] The New York Times will later claim: “At times, Mr. Zubaida, still weak from his wounds, was stripped and placed in a cell without a bunk or blankets. He stood or lay on the bare floor, sometimes with air-conditioning adjusted so that, one official said, Mr. Zubaida seemed to turn blue. At other times, the interrogators piped in deafening blasts of music by groups like the Red Hot Chili Peppers.” [New York Times, 9/10/2006] Zubaida will reportedly later tell the Red Cross that he was also kept for a prolonged period in a cage, known as a “dog box,” so small that he unable to stand. [New Yorker, 8/6/2007] The CIA will claim that these aggressive methods are very effective, and soon it will begin using them on many other detainees. But others will later suggest that Zubaida gave up far less valuable information under torture than he did with the FBI’s rapport-building techniques (see June 2002). The legal authority to conduct these types of interrogations is unclear. The CIA is being advised by Michael Chertoff at the Justice Department, but there will be no formal legal opinion permitting the techniques until August 2002. [New York Times, 9/10/2006]
In May 2002, the CIA began using new torture techniques on captured al-Qaeda leader Abu Zubaida (see Mid-May 2002 and After), and by June senior CIA officials prepare a preliminary report to determine whether Zubaida’s confessions are accurate or not. According to author Gerald Posner, they “found nothing that could definitively prove Zubaida a liar. And they had uncovered some minor corroborating evidence about the times and places of the meetings he had mentioned, which meant he could be telling the truth.” [Posner, 2003, pp. 192] Vanity Fair will later comment that the “CIA would go on to claim credit for breaking Zubaida, and celebrate [James] Mitchell”—the psychologist who devised the torture techniques used on Zubaida by the CIA (see Late 2001-Mid-March 2002, January 2002 and After, and Mid-April 2002)—“as a psychological wizard who held the key to getting hardened terrorists to talk. Word soon spread that Mitchell and [his business partner Bruce] Jessen had been awarded a medal by the CIA for their advanced interrogation techniques. While the claim is impossible to confirm, what matters is that others believed it. The reputed success of the tactics was ‘absolutely in the ether,’ says one Pentagon civilian who worked on detainee policy.” [Vanity Fair, 7/17/2007]
Much Intelligence Comes from His Possessions and FBI Interrogations - However, the reliability of Zubaida’s confessions remains controversial years later, and several factors complicate accessing their impact. For one, it appears that some of his most important confessions took place a month earlier when the FBI was interrogating him using rapport building instead of torture (see Late March through Early June, 2002). What the New York Times calls his two most notable confessions—that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was the 9/11 mastermind and giving up the name of Jose Padilla, a militant living in the US—appear to come from this earlier period, although some accounts conflict. [New York Times, 6/27/2004; Suskind, 2006, pp. 116-117; New York Times, 9/10/2006; Vanity Fair, 7/17/2007] Furthermore, it is often not clear what was obtained from Zubaida’s confessions and what was obtained from his possessions. Journalist Ron Suskind will later write: “The phone numbers, computers, CDs, and e-mail address seized at Zubaida’s apartment now—a month after his capture—began to show a yield.… These higher-quality inputs were entered into big Cray supercomputers at NSA; many then formed the roots of a surveillance tree—truck to branches to limbs and buds.” [Suskind, 2006, pp. 116-117] So while it is said that information from Zubaida helped lead to the capture of al-Qaeda figures such as Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, Omar al-Faruq, and Ahmed Muhammad al-Darbi, it is unclear where this information came from exactly. [Washington Post, 6/27/2004] Additionally, it is not even clear if he provided such leads. For instance, it has been reported that the main break that led to bin al-Shibh’s capture had nothing to do with Zubaida (see June 14, 2002 and Shortly After). [Salon, 9/7/2006]
Zubaida Describes Vague and Unverifiable Plots - By most accounts, Zubaida’s confessions under torture around this time are frustratingly vague. He describes many planned attacks, such as al-Qaeda attacks on US shopping malls, banks, supermarkets, water systems, nuclear plants, apartment buildings, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, and more. Red alerts are sounded and thousands of law enforcement personnel are activated each time, but the warnings are too vague to lead to any arrests. Suskind will later comment that Zubaida’s information was “maybe nonsense, maybe not. There was almost no way to tell.” [Suskind, 2006, pp. 115-116, 121] But Suskind will later say more definitively: “[Zubaida] said, as people will, anything to make the pain stop. And we essentially followed every word and various uniformed public servants of the United States went running all over the country to various places that Zubaydah said were targets, and were not. Ultimately, we tortured an insane man and ran screaming at every word he uttered.” [Salon, 9/7/2006] Posner claims that Zubaida provided “false information intended to misdirect his captors.” For instance, “He caused the New York police to deploy massive manpower to guard the Brooklyn Bridge at the end of May , after he told his interrogators that al-Qaeda had a plan to destroy ‘the bridge in the Godzilla movie.’” [Posner, 2003, pp. 191]
Link between Iraq, al-Qaeda - Perhaps the most important claims Zubaida makes, at least from the viewpoint of Bush administration officials, are his allegations of an operational relationship between Iraq and al-Qaeda. Some of Zubaida’s claims will later be leaked by administration officials, particularly his assertion that Osama bin Laden’s ally Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was working directly with Saddam Hussein to destabilize the autonomous Kurdish regime in northern Iraq (see December 2001-Mid-2002, October 2, 2002, and January 28, 2003). A former Pentagon analyst will later say: “I first saw the reports soon after Abu Zubaida’s capture. There was a lot of stuff about the nuts and bolts of al-Qaeda’s supposed relationship with the Iraqi Intelligence Service. The intelligence community was lapping this up, and so was the administration, obviously. Abu Zubaida was saying Iraq and al-Qaeda had an operational relationship. It was everything the administration hoped it would be.” Another Pentagon analyst will recall: “As soon as I learned that the reports had come from torture, once my anger had subsided I understood the damage it had done. I was so angry, knowing that the higher-ups in the administration knew he was tortured, and that the information he was giving up was tainted by the torture, and that it became one reason to attack Iraq.” [Vanity Fair, 12/16/2008]
Zubaida Appears to Be Feeding Interrogators' Expectations - Dan Coleman, the FBI’s top al-Qaeda expert at the time who was able to analyze all the evidence from Zubaida, will later claim that the CIA “got nothing useful from the guy.” [Congressional Quarterly, 12/14/2007] Coleman will say: “The CIA wants everything in five minutes. It’s not possible, and it’s not productive. What you get in that circumstance are captives and captors playing to each other’s expectations, playing roles, essentially, that gives you a lot of garbage information and nothing you can use.” [Suskind, 2006, pp. 114] Given his low position in the jihadist hierachy, Coleman will add, Zubaida “would not have known that if it was true. But you can lead people down a course and make them say anything.” [Vanity Fair, 12/16/2008] Counterterrorism “tsar” General Wayne Downing is apparently intimately involved in Zubaida’s interrogation and will later recall: “[Zubaida] and some of the others are very clever guys. At times I felt we were in a classic counter-interrogation class: They were telling us what they think we already knew. Then, what they thought we wanted to know. As they did that, they fabricated and weaved in threads that went nowhere. But, even with these ploys, we still get valuable information and they are off the street, unable to plot and coordinate future attacks.” [Washington Post, 12/26/2002] In legal papers to prepare for a military tribunal hearing in 2007, Zubaida himself will assert that he told his interrogators whatever they wanted to hear to make the torture stop. [Washington Post, 12/18/2007]
Entity Tags: Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Central Intelligence Agency, Abu Zubaida, Bruce Jessen, Ahmed Muhammad al-Darbi, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Dan Coleman, Jose Padilla, Wayne Downing, Omar al-Faruq, James Elmer Mitchell, Ramzi bin al-Shibh
Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline
Instructors from the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA), which oversees the military’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) training program, conduct a training seminar for intelligence officials. JPRA officials, including senior psychologist Bruce Jessen, have proposed a set of interrogation procedures that amounts to torture (see January 2002 and After and April 16, 2002), and the JPRA instructors are now training CIA and other agency officials in those procedures. Two JPRA legal advisers tell the group that such harsh interrogation methodologies are already deemed acceptable, even though the Justice Department has not yet issued such approval (see August 1, 2002). The lawyers tell the seminar participants, “They [interrogators] could use all forms of psychological pressure discussed, and all the physiological pressures with the exception of the ‘water board.’” The lawyers say that waterboarding might also be permitted, but interrogators “would need prior approval.” [Washington Post, 4/22/2009] During the seminar, CIA agents are given two days of training in waterboarding (see July 1-2, 2002). In 2009, the media learns that Jessen and his partner, James Mitchell, are paid $1,000 a day for the training (see April 30, 2009).
The CIA fires two contractors, psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, from their lucrative consulting contracts. Mitchell and Jessen designed the CIA’s torture program (see January 2002 and After, April 16, 2002, Mid-April 2002, and Between Mid-April and Mid-May 2002), and earned $1,000 a day in doing so (see April 30, 2009). The CIA now believes that the two fundamentally misrepresented their knowledge of the safety and efficacy of particular torture techniques, particularly waterboarding. The firings are part of a larger “purge” by CIA Director Leon Panetta of all contractors involved in the Bush-era torture program. Panetta tells CIA employees that all contractors involved in the interrogation program and secret prisons are being “promptly terminated.” [ABC News, 6/16/2009]
ABC News learns that two former military officers, both psychologists, were paid $1,000 a day to design a program to torture and waterboard detainees in US custody. The psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen (see January 2002 and After, April 16, 2002, Mid-April 2002, and Between Mid-April and Mid-May 2002), were recipients of a contract awarded by the CIA to their firm, Mitchell Jessen and Associates. Mitchell and Jessen told the CIA that waterboarding was safe to use on prisoners. The American Civil Liberties Union’s Jameel Jaffer says, “It’s clear that these psychologists had an important role in developing what became the CIA’s torture program.” According to ABC, “Associates say the two made good money doing it, boasting of being paid a thousand dollars a day by the CIA to oversee the use of the techniques on top al-Qaeda suspects at CIA secret sites.” Air Force interrogator Colonel Steven Kleinman says, “The whole intense interrogation concept that we hear about is essentially their concepts.” ABC notes that “neither Mitchell nor Jessen had any experience in conducting actual interrogations before the CIA hired them.” A military officer says that the CIA “went to two individuals who had no interrogation experience. They are not interrogators.” The CIA came to believe that the waterboarding “expertise” they claimed was “misrepresented,” and therefore the claims that waterboarding was “medically safe” and “effective” were questionable. As ABC notes, “The waterboarding used on al-Qaeda detainees was far more intense than the brief sessions used on US military personnel in the training classes.” [ABC News, 4/30/2009; Raw Story, 5/1/2009]
Bryce Lefever, a former military psychologist who worked with the US military’s SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) program, says the techniques reverse-engineered from the program and used to torture terrorism suspects in US custody are justified. Lefever has worked with two military psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, since 1990, developing techniques for SERE training. That training helps prepare US soldiers to resist torture if they are captured by enemy forces and interrogated. Mitchell and Jessen helped create the torture program of interrogation used by the US against suspected terrorists (see January 2002 and After, April 16, 2002, and Mid-April 2002). Lefever himself served as a military psychologist at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, where prisoners were routinely tortured and brutalized.
Patriots - Unlike many critics who have attacked the psychologists’ lack of ethics and concern, Lefever calls Mitchell and Jessen patriots. “I think the media ought to give us a big ol’ thank you for our efforts on behalf of America,” Lefever says. “There should be some recognition of the effort—the really extreme effort—that we’ve gone through to help.”
Ethically Compelled to Construct Torture Program - Lefever says the criticism of Mitchell and Jessen is unfounded and stems from a basic misunderstanding of the ethical mission of psychologists. “[T]he idea that they would be involved in producing some pain just seems at first blush to be something that would be wrong, because we ‘do no harm,’” he says, but “the ethical consideration is always to do the most good for the most people.” Because torturing a “few” prisoners might well produce intelligence that would help prevent another attack on the magnitude of 9/11, Lefever says, it was incumbent on Mitchell, Jessen, and himself to use their knowledge of SERE tactics to construct an interrogation program that might elicit such actionable intelligence. “America’s house was broken into on 9/11 and someone had to raise their hand to stop it,” he says. “And early on there was a sense of desperation in intelligence-gathering.” Lefever has no doubts that torture works to produce reliable intelligence. “You know, the tough nut to crack, if you keep him awake for a week, you torture him, you tie his arms behind him, you have him on the ground—anyone can be brought beyond their ability to resist.” Indeed, he says, it would have been unethical for him not to come forward: “America is my client; Americans are who I care about. I have no fondness for the enemy and I don’t feel like I need to take care of their mental health needs.” Mitchell, Jessen, and other military psychologists felt the same way, he says. “Anyone who wants to throw stones in this situation really needs to step back and figure out what they themselves would do in these situations and not just be ‘ivory tower’ critics,” he notes. “Most of the time they have no idea what they’re talking about.” [National Public Radio, 5/4/2009]
Accused of Abandoning Ethical Code - Psychologist Stephen Soldz, who writes for the organization Psychoanalysts for Peace and Justice, is highly critical of Lefever’s stance, accusing him of renouncing the psychologists’ code of ethics, and notes that Lefever implicitly acknowledges that SERE tactics were used on US detainees, an admission CIA and Pentagon officials have been loath to make. [Psychoanalysts for Peace and Justice, 5/4/2009]
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