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James Mitchell, CIA's "Torture Teacher" Hits Back

By Toby Harnden - December 16, 2014

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A month before 9/11, Mitchell had retired as a lieutenant colonel following 22 years of service. Last week, his voice broke with emotion as he recalled how his plans had been upended when al-Qaeda hijacked four passenger planes.

“Thinking about those people having to decide whether to jump off that building or burn to death, it’s horrible,” Mitchell said. “And those guys wanted to do that to Canary Wharf,” he added, referring to a claim KSM made under interrogation (and later withdrew) about a plot to strike in east London.

“It’s just crazy to me,” said Mitchell. “They forget how scared they were the day after. It was in that atmosphere that the Senate and the president and the Congress and the American people demanded that the CIA do whatever was required to keep them safe.”

John Brennan, the CIA director, also invoked 9/11 as he castigated Feinstein during a rare news conference. He said it was “lamentable” that Feinstein’s staff had not interviewed a single CIA officer, opting instead to carry out a paper investigation to back up a conclusion they had already reached.

Brennan was acutely aware that Obama had already acknowledged “we tortured some folks”. The world, moreover, had been shocked by accounts of “rectal rehydration” — a form of force feeding — and of an Afghan called Gul Rahman, left naked from the waist down, dying of hypothermia.

One CIA employee had played Russian roulette with a prisoner. Another had brandished a loaded pistol and a power drill close to a prisoner’s head. Brennan conceded that some techniques were “not authorised” and “abhorrent”.

In a remarkable piece of Washington political theatre, as Brennan was speaking, Feinstein took to twitter to seek to rebut him point by point. Former senior CIA officers had already set up a www.ciasavedlives.com to make their case against Feinstein.

Michael Hayden, the CIA director from 2006 to 2009, told The Sunday Times that the report was “relentlessly accusatory” and the CIA had admitted to errors in the early years of the interrogations.

“A case in point was a contractor [David Passaro] who used a flashlight to beat a detainee...it was reported immediately and he was prosecuted and convicted in North Carolina and was sentenced to [eight years] prison [in 2004]."

Similarly, the CIA had reacted swiftly when the Gul Rahman died of hypothermia. “The agency made a big mistake. “It put a young officer into a position for which we had not prepared him. The incident was immediately turned over to the Department of Justice. It has been investigated twice and each time prosecution was declined.”

Feinstein’s report concluded Rahman was not a terrorist but a victim of “mistaken identity”.

Hayden said outrage over rectal rehydration had been uninformed. “It was a medical procedure, not an interrogation technique.” Rather than using a needle or feeding through the nose, it “was considered to be the safest approach for a non-compliant detainee and so that’s why it was done”.

Dick Cheney, George W Bush’s vice -president, who once championed the need to work through “the dark side”, told Fox News he had no doubts about the methods of Mitchell and others.

“I think what needed to be done was done. I think we were perfectly justified in doing it. And I’d do it again in a minute.The CIA did a hell of a job, and they deserve our gratitude,” he said.

John Rizzo, a top CIA lawyer throughout the interrogation programme, said that all 11 “EITs” had been authorised by Bush’s Department of Justice.

“They were brutal. They were harsh. I would never want them done to me,” he said. “But there’s a definition of what torture is. I went to the highest level of the executive branch to get a definitive legal view 12 years ago . . . I relied on that. I believed it didn’t meet the legal threshold [for torture] and I still believe it.”

According to Feinstein’s report, Bush did not find out about waterboarding until 2006. But Cheney pointed out that Bush wrote in his memoir that he had approved it in 2002.

Rizzo said the report was flawed because no one at the CIA had been consulted. Republicans questioned the timing of the report summary’s release, just before Feinstein steps down as committee chair following the Democrats’ defeat in midterm elections.

“How do you do a four-year investigation of a programme in which you attack the integrity and honour and competence of specific CIA officials but never give them a chance to be interviewed?” he asked. Feinstein’s claim that it was not possible because of potential prosecutions was “utter bullshit”.

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Toby Harnden is the Washington bureau chief of The Sunday Times. You can follow him on Twitter here.

This article originally appeared in The Sunday Times. It is reprinted here with permission. 

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