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

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

By Toby Harnden - December 16, 2014

In a secret CIA prison in Thailand, codenamed Detention Site Green, Abu Zubaydah sat shackled to a chair, naked except for a hood over his head. The windowless cell was painted white and illuminated by four halogen lights.

The terrorist said to have ranked third in al-Qaeda had been captured in Pakistan five months earlier, in March 2002. He had endured relentless questioning, but this day would be different: an American former military psychologist working as a CIA contractor and identified last week by the pseudonym Grayson Swigert would run the interrogation.

For the first time, Swigert had been authorised to use up to 11 “enhanced interrogation techniques”. According to critics of the Orwellian-sounding “EIT programme”, the US was entering the torture business.

The CIA officers interrogating Abu Zubaydah were directed by Swigert and a fellow PhD in psychology, given the name Hammond Dunbar, to place a rolled towel around his neck. They removed his hood, grabbed his face and forced him to watch a coffin being brought into the cell. He was slapped and slammed against a wall.

Six hours later, Swigert decreed that “waterboarding” would begin. Abu Zubaydah was held down as water was poured on to a cloth over his face, simulating drowning.

According to CIA records, Abu Zubaydah vomited and had “involuntary spasms of the torso and extremities”. He was to be waterboarded at least 83 times over the next 17 days. On one occasion, he “became completely unresponsive with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth”.

An incendiary 525-page report summary released by Democrats on the Senate select committee on intelligence last week portrayed Swigert as the architect of a regime of torture. It depicted Swigert and Dunbar as profiteers who had duped the CIA into paying their company $81m (£51m).

“Neither psychologist had any experience as an interrogator, nor did either have specialised knowledge of al-Qaeda, a background in counterterrorism, or any relevant cultural or linguistic expertise,” the report stated.

Speaking at his home outside Tampa, Florida, James Mitchell, 62, a veteran of US air force special forces and a former instructor at its Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) school, acknowledged that he was Swigert. He blasted the report, which has been bitterly criticised by the CIA and branded by Republicans as a partisan “hit job”. Dunbar was identified as a one-time Mormon bishop from Idaho called Bruce Jessen.

“It’s like being caught up in a Kafka novel,” said Mitchell. “They’re just interested in burning down the CIA and smearing the names and reputations of people who died protecting this country.”

Former senior CIA officers have insisted that information gained from the waterboarding of Abu Zubaydah led eventually to the capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, known as “KSM” and alleged to have planned the September 11 terrorist attacks of 2001. Mitchell and Jessen later waterboarded KSM at the CIA’s Detention Site Blue in Poland.

“The CIA did what it was asked to do,” Mitchell said. “People forget what it was like after 9/11. They forget that there was all this talk about [al-Qaeda] bringing in atomic weapons or trying to get chemical weapons.”

Senator Dianne Feinstein, who oversaw the intelligence committee’s four-year investigation into the CIA’s activities, took a different view. Her staff examined more than 6.3m pages of documents to produce a report of 6,700 pages that cost $40m (£25m) and remains classified. Her verdict was that the CIA’s actions were “a stain on our values and our history”.

From 2002 to 2009, Feinstein said, 119 terrorist suspects — 26 of whom were innocent — were subjected to “coercive interrogation techniques, in some cases amounting to torture” at CIA “black sites” in Thailand, Poland, Romania, Lithuania and Afghanistan.

The report threatens to ensnare Britain, which has been accused of allowing US planes to refuel in Scotland and the island of Diego Garcia while carrying out the “rendition” of suspects to black sites or countries such as Egypt and Uzbekistan, where torture is unchecked.

Britain is barely mentioned in the report summary but Downing Street sources admitted that MI6 had liaised with the CIA over what should be redacted, fuelling suspicions that Britain had covered up its role.

Feinstein argued that torture techniques produced “fabricated information” but no valuable intelligence. Her conclusions have triggered a blistering counter-attack from the CIA and its supporters, who insist that Mitchell and others are being made scapegoats because of what is described as “hindsight bias and hubris”.

In a joint statement, three former CIA directors and their deputies said their interrogation programme “was essential to bringing [Osama] bin Laden to justice” by identifying a courier who gave US Navy Seals the opportunity to kill him in Pakistan in 2011.

Were the interrogation techniques effective? Were they justified and understandable given the unprecedented threat after bin Laden’s organisation had killed 2,996 people in America?

And is there any greater morality in killing terrorist suspects and civilians in drone strikes, as President Barack Obama has done for the past six years, than in using the tactics of men such as Mitchell and Jessen?

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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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Torture Report Shortchanges Moral Ambiguities
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