Content Warning: Torture, War Crimes, Medical Malpractice
A month ago I stumbled over the fact that Dr James Mitchell had written a book. So I bought a copy.
Dr. James Mitchell, PhD., is the psychologist who helped design the torture program the CIA used on captives post-9/11.
It’s not particularly well-written, but somehow the awkwardness of the language fits with the content.
There are some fairly interesting tidbits in here, many of which confirm things I already suspected – so I’m concerned about confirmation bias. After about 100 pages in, I concluded that I couldn’t trust what the author was saying about many things. When I’m critically reading a history, I look for an analysis of what happened in context, and I expect it to be free from obvious ideologically motivated reasoning, and to present other analysis – even if only in order to refute it. To me, that’s a matter of intellectual honesty. Mitchell doesn’t even try. Which ought to tell you something.
I’ll give you the one glaring example that completely discredited him for me: he proceeds into a discussion of how “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” (EIT) were not torture because, um…
CIA officers had been using a rapport-based approach with Abu Zubaydah, and it clearly wasn’t working. They had already decided to get rough. The question was how that would be achieved.
At the meeting, I described some of the SERE techniques that eventually were adopted.
Jose asked how long I thought it would take to know whether a detainee exposed to those techniques would be willing to cooperate or would “take his secrets to the grave.” I told him thirty days.
The techniques that Mitchell recommended were drawn from the military’s Survival, Evasion, Rescue, Escape, (SERE) [corrected, see comment #2] program – a program intended to train nuclear weapons operators or special forces operators to keep secrets in the event that they were captured and interrogated.
As senior SERE psychologists, Bruce Jessen and I had spent several years trying to get the Navy SERE school to abandon its use of waterboarding not because it didn’t work but because we thought it was too effective. One hundred percent of the warfighters exposed to it in training capitulated even if it cost them their jobs. In my view, waterboarding students did the enemy’s job for them. The point of resistance training is to teach students that they can protect secrets, but my personal experience interviewing POWs and warfighters who had been waterboarded at the SERE school was that after waterboarding they didn’t believe they could protect secrets anymore. I told Jose about waterboarding at a meeting the next day.
I have trouble processing that: it was too effective because it broke trainees’ will to resist. As senior SERE psychologist he argued against it because it was – in effect – torturing the trainees, breaking them. Therefore, it was probably going to an effective torture to use on Abu Zubaydah.
He is also creepily nationalistic when it’s convenient for him to be:
My mind flashed to the victims of 9/11, to the “falling man” who chose to dive headfirst off the Twin Towers rather than burn to death, and to the passengers of United Flight 93 who bravely sacrificed their lives to save the lives of other Americans. I thought, if they can sacrifice their lives, I can do this. I didn’t want to, but I would.
Apparently his mother never told him that “two wrongs don’t make a right” (or, as Miles Vorkosigan put it, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and pretty soon everyone is blind and needs dentures.”) I interpret this as profoundly dishonest or so ideologically warped that he is incapable of thinking at all. For one thing, it’s quite possible that given the choice between jumping off a building and being waterboarded, perhaps some of his victims would have chosen the former.
I also knew that they were going to get rough with Abu Zubaydah whether I helped or not.
That’s almost, but not quite “I was just following orders.” Waiting to be ordered to do something atrocious takes more backbone than just deciding, as Mitchell apparently did, “oh, well, since it’s going to happen, it might as well be me that does it.”
That’s around Page 45, which is where I began to conclude that Mitchell was not going to be honest with his readers. It is an unavoidable fact that waterboarding has historically been considered to be torture: Japanese soldiers were hanged following WWII, for waterboarding American and British prisoners. To be fair, the Japanese soldiers committed a wide range of tortures including outright killing prisoners, but waterboarding was one of the capital charges against them. I cannot expect a thoughtful and learned person – let alone an MD/PhD – to utterly avoid such an obvious fact. All I can conclude is that he’s lying to his readers, or himself.
Once outside, I saw they had another American spread-eagled on a large board. His head was about ten inches lower than his feet, and his arms and feet were outstretched and tied to the board. A Japanese soldier was holding the American’s nose closed while another soldier poured what I later found out was salt water from a tea kettle into the prisoner’s mouth. In a minute or two, the American started coughing and throwing up water. The Japanese were simulating a drowning situation while the victim was on land. Every few seconds an officer would lean over and ask the prisoner a question. If he did not receive an immediate answer he would order that more water be forced into the prisoner’s mouth.I could not believe my eyes. Torture of this nature was something I had read about in history books. It was used during the medieval times, certainly not in the twentieth century. My God, I wondered, what is in store for me? [source]
That’s from Lester Tenney’s memoir of the Bataan death-march. Tenney appears to have been better educated than Dr. Mitchell, PhD., since he knew that waterboarding was a popular technique used by the Spanish Inquisition. It prefigures Mitchell’s account:
It was an ugly sight. Abu Zubaydah had beans and rice stuck to his fact and in his chest hair. Because the fluid around his lips was kind of thick it bubbled as he breathed in and out. We wiped it off with a hood and waited what seemed like a long time to see if medical personnel were going to intervene.
Now, let me shift gears to remise another point I’ve made elsewhere on this topic: this stuff does not happen in a vaccum. Mitchell repeatedly mentions the names of his co-conspirators. He names one of the FBI agents that was present early in the interrogations, and describes another. He just, in the paragraph above, mentioned that there were medical personnel present. Plural. Later, he describes how the Chief of Base (COB) and Chief of Station (COS) wanted to observe the waterboarding. He implicates the chain of command; there is no way this sort of thing happens in a vacuum: that’s why it’s so offensive that the US Government went to far as to figure out that the waterboardings were videotaped, then made sure they were destroyed (we call that “destroying evidence”) and then decided to throw the whole thing down the memory-hole because apparently they hadn’t read the chief torturer’s book about his crimes.
Given the topic he’s writing about, Mitchell’s choice of language makes me loathe him. On one hand, he lingers pornographically over some of the details of torturing the prisoners, but then shifts to passive euphemisms when the nasty parts start. Imagine if you were reading a piece of pornography that read something like, “Get on your knees, I said, and then when they complied, I put my thingie behind their back and, you know.” To me, it’s reminiscent of the reports of the killer drone-pilots who used to laugh and banter as they fired missiles into weddings and – years later – are suffering from PTSD and wracked with guilt. Really? And it’s worse: Mitchell confronts and stands up to the deputy chief to protest – but only because a new chief interrogator called him a “pussy.” It gets worse still: Mitchell defends that he’s not a “pussy” because, after all, he had been waterboarding Abu Zubaydah. Manhood credentials fully on display, Mitchell lapses back to a weirdly passive tone:
When I started describing how the chief interrogator used a broomstick behind al-Nashiri’s knees, blew cigar smoke in his face to restrict his breathing, scrubbed him with a stiff brush and strapped his elbows behind his back and lifted his arms toward the ceiling, the RDI branch chief’s face flushed bright red.
Tying elbows behind the back and lifting the arms is an other Spanish inquisition technique, called “strappado” And “used a broomstick behind al-Nashiri’s knees”?!? “Used”?! Used to do what? Mitchell also uses deflective language around the “stiff brush” – they were tying the victim to a gurney with his legs spread apart and brushing his balls and asshole with an abrasive brush, calling it “hygeine procedure” because it sounds a bit nicer than “sexual assault.” It’s odd to me that someone can simultaneously be such a cringing coward as Mitchell, yet still be able to waterboard another human being. It’s probably got something to do with the fact that their victim was strapped, helplessly, to a gurney and Mitchell had a half-dozen other witnesses standing around helping.
I learned other things from Mitchell’s miserable book: when the CIA said that “no CIA personnel are involved in torture” I immediately suspected that those were very carefully-chosen words. Sure enough: Mitchell was a contractor. As has been disclosed elsewhere, Mitchell and Jessen Associates [wikipedia] were paid $80 million for their services. According to Mitchell he didn’t just waterboard Abu Zubaydah, he waterboarded Ramzi Bin Alshibh, Khalid Shayk Mohammed, and others. The CIA had outsourced its torture program.
Mitchell makes an oblique and disturbing connection that I hadn’t, yet. He links the exposure of the Abu Ghraib prisoner torture to the shutdown of his interrogation program. That’s 2004. Abu Zubaydah was captured in 2002. The torture program was not a small thing – especially not if they ran up a $80 million tab for Mitchell and Jessen’s services. Of course it was, Mitchell describes briefing Condoleeza Rice in June 2007, describing and demonstrating some of the techniques in use. And he implicates other high-placed members of the regime as being complicit in torture:
Less than a week after the CTC had decided to move ahead with efforts to incorporate SERE interrogation techniques into the CIA’s interrogation program, Jose asked me to accompany him to see the CIA’s director, George Tenet. That meeting took place in the early evening in Tenet’s wood-paneled office on the seventh floor of agency headquarters. John Rizzo, the CIA’s chief legal advisor, was also there.
As the meeting wound down and it was obvious that Jose was waiting for Tenet to tell him if he should press forward, Tenet stood up from his chair at the coffee table. He made eye contact with Rizzo and motioned with his head for him to follow as he stepped behind a large desk deeper in the room. Tenet began rummaging around in a cigar case and then turned his head away from those of us sitting around the coffee table and in a low voice, probably so he would not be overheard, told Rizzo, “Make sure this is legal before we do it.” Tenet then stuck the unlit cigar in his mouth, turned toward us, and told Rodriguez to press forward but make sure the Justice Department was fully on board and considered these steps legal before the techniques were actually employed.
Through it all, there’s a subtext that it took me a while to figure out: Mitchell is absurdly ignorant about what he’s trying to do. It’s not just that he’s a horrible human being, he’s also a lousy interrogator. He puts up a veneer of scientism, but when you start to think about what he’s doing and saying, it quickly becomes apparent that some of his victims out-maneuvered him and out-thought him from the very beginning. The smug way he describes their actions makes it clear that that still hasn’t sunk in, and probably never will:
Abu Zubaydah’s highest level of apprehension occurred when he was hooded and stood against the walling wall just before the next session started; that was the time he would be most apt to offer useful information he had been withholding. Thus, when the waterboard session ended and before he was left in his cell, we said “The next time we come back we are going to ask you this question,” and then told him the question. We then said, “Take some time, pull yourself together, and think about it. Because if you answer our questions next time, this won’t happen again.”
After about seventy-two hours, Abu Zubaydah gradually started answering them, but he did more than that. Over time, where he previously had pleaded ignorance or provided short vague answers lacking detail, he started putting his answers into a larger context, providing background and unsolicited details on the topics we were asking about.
Mitchell is so ignorant he probably doesn’t even realize that was also a Spanish Inquisition technique. Like the inquisition, Mitchell and the CIA had already decided what they were going to learn from Zubaydah, and had adopted a technique that gave him plenty of time to think up plausible stories to toss them, to make the torture stop.
Don’t buy this book, or waste your time reading it. Instead, if you ever encounter Mitchell, take the $19 in one-dollar bills, crumple them into tight little balls, and ram them down his throat one at a time using a broom-handle. He won’t mind, that kind of thing is perfectly acceptable in his world.
Mitchell names Jose Rodriguez as the Deputy Chief of the Counter-Terrorism Center (CTC). Jose Rodriguez insisted that they learned useful intelligence. He also destroyed evidence that he was eyewitness to. There’s an interview with him on CBS here.
Waterboarding: The Meaning for Japan by Kinue Tokudome: excellent.
Mitchell doesn’t mention anything about what happened to Abu Zubaydah’s eye. Apparently it just … fell out. He describes how, when he was initially captured, he had severe injuries to his upper thigh on one leg, so they waited until he’d healed up before they started torturing him. But no mention of his eye. “Shit happens,” apparently.