I Gargle in Vomit So You Don’t Have To

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.

Japanese war criminal being hanged at Changi Prison

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.

------ divider ------

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.


  1. says

    Why is it SERE instead of SEER?

    I have no idea.
    Oh, I got it wrong: Survival Resistance Evasion Escape – I flipped two around. I’ll fix it above with a correction.

  2. says

    Yes, that’s the person who probably actually wrote this miserable excuse for an excuse. I’m pretty confident that Harlow would also not mind the $19 treatment.

    Bill Harlow (born May 30, 1950) is a Retired Navy Captain, author, and public relations specialist. He has been the top spokesperson for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and worked in the White House dealing with National Security Media issues

    The subtitle on the book is pretty revealing. The entire book accepts the nationalist agenda. It’s fairly free of overt islamophobia – they seem to be comfortable torturing anyone who threatens their nation or they are paid to. Not necessarily in that order.

    $40 million can drink away a lot of sad. I spared you all the parts where he talks about how emotionally distressing it was to see Abu Zubaydah cry with relief when they stopped.

  3. chigau (違う) says

    how emotionally distressing it was to see Abu Zubaydah cry with relief when they stopped

    I just threw up in my mouth.
    That first-up-against-the-wall thing can’t happen soon enough.

  4. Dunc says

    Nice of him to provide such a lengthy and detailed confession. Shame nothing will ever be done about it.

  5. cartomancer says

    Is there any attempt made to show that the torture produced useful intelligence (which, I would have thought, is pretty much the only justification one could make for doing it), or is that not of concern for this Mitchell creep?

    I mean, I know torture doesn’t do that, and he probably knows as well (if he has a doctorate in psychology he damn well ought to), but does he even try to pretend it is anything more than vicious cruelty in pursuit of brutalisation and revenge?

  6. says

    There is a consistent series of claims that there was useful intelligence gathered. Also, I am predisposed to disbelieve this account as extremely self-serving: he is very careful to try to throw people he doesn’t like under the bus, while constantly excusing himself. I think he’s a liar, so I take all claims with helpings of salt.

    One of the claims is that they were able to prevent attacks. Yet, at the same time he reveals that the attack that was stopped in the planning stage was Jose Padilla’s attempt to make a dirty bomb. That is outright egregious bullshit (that’s the technical intelligence term for it) – Padilla was an ignorant gang-banger who had no idea how to make a radiological dispersion device, they don’t work anyway, and he had no plausible access or even a vague idea where he might get radioactive materials or how to mill or handle them. Claiming that Padilla was a threat prevented would be laughable except for the horrible consequences to Padilla. He shot his mouth like Ted Nugent, but he’s still “disappeared” somewhere, unlike Ted.

    Then there is the matter of the time-line I attempted to allude to earlier: they had Zubaydah for a long time (?4 months?) before they started torturing him. It would be the worst trade-craft EVER for Al Quaeda not to have heard on CNN that Zubaydah was taken alive and not to assume that everything he knew was burned. Every communication channel and location or operation he knew anything about was useless within 8 hours of his capture. Sure, he might have confirmed that Khalid Shayk Mohammed was the attack planner, or whatever, but any confirmatory intelligence he could have spilled was useless and any intelligence analyst with any honesty would acknowledge that. It is likely that any confirming intelligence Zybaydah gave up was because it was something to say, it didn’t matter, and it was an easy way to build credibility.

    I would argue that those putting out the useful intelligence story are lying – if the best they got was Padilla (useless) and confirmatory intelligence (useless) and maybe some thoroughly blown information (useless) they did not learn anything from him.

    Also, they tortured him until Mitchell felt they had gotten everything from him, so they took a break then came back a month later and were more aggressive (whatever that means) – Mitchell himself says he doesn’t know why headquarters wanted interrogation to resume.

    Mitchell justifies his actions with the fig-leaf that they got intelligence (I doubt it) and his nationalism “my nation was attacked” and the guy jumping from the World Trade Center on 9/11, and “if I don’t do it, somebody else will.” No mention of the $40,000,000 – I’m sure that didn’t affect a passionate nationalist like Mitchell; the CIA probably had to threaten him to get him to cash the checks.

  7. says

    I am still trying to find any account of what happened to Abu Zubaydah’s eye. I found some worrying accounts of other prisoners at Baghram and Gitmo having guards jab thumbs into their eyes while slamming them into “walling walls” (Mitchell’s invention: a wall made of plywood with a clapper inside it to make it resonate when someone was flung against it.)

  8. Reginald Selkirk says

    since he knew that waterboarding was a popular technique used by the Spanish Inquisition.

    Uh huh. If someone defends the use of torture to derive confessions, he takes upon his shoulders a share of the burden of blame for every inquisition and witch hunt in human history, because they were all driven by torture-derived confessions. Which leads directly to another obvious fact: people will talk when tortured, but you can’t rely on the information being accurate.

  9. kestrel says

    This is so disturbing. Seems to me the only motivation here was a bunch of people wanting to be cruel and violent. The excuses are pathetic. i’ve met little kids who could come up with better ones… not that a better excuse would make the slightest difference, this is criminal behavior, plain and simple.

  10. jrkrideau says

    It is vaguely possible that in some cases that torture may have elicited some useful information but not likely.

    As Marcus says above a) the technique seems to let the victim know what is wanted so he has time to invent something and b) once you know a key member of your cell or organization is captured you just shut down everything you can and, if necessay, run.

    I think Maher Arar, a Canadian engineer who was kidnapped by the Americans (CIA?) and sent to Syria to be tortured put it well when asked why he had confessed to ridiculous things like having been in an Al Quaeda training camp in Afghanistan.

    “When you are being tortured you will tell them whatever they want to hear”.

    I cannot see any reason that Abu Zubaydah or any other victim in such a situation would not do some creative lying. It’s not going to make things worse.

    You might even sacrifice a few dupes (like Padilla perhaps?) to enhance your credibility. I believe Sun Tzu recommends something similar in his discussion of spies.

  11. Pierce R. Butler says

    … waterboarding was a popular technique used by the Spanish Inquisition.

    For a rather specific value of “popular”…

    Can’t recall my source at the moment, but I’ve read that Spanish authorities continued the use of waterboarding up through the late 19th century in the Philippines, where US troops learned (a lot) about it whilst “liberating” those sunny islands. They must have written it down somewhere and sealed it up in a box labeled “Break Only in a REAL Emergency” which nobody touched until 9/12/01.

  12. says

    Pierce R. Butler@#13:
    For a rather specific value of “popular”…

    I agree, that was an ill-chosen word. Sorry about that.

    They must have written it down somewhere and sealed it up in a box labeled “Break Only in a REAL Emergency” which nobody touched until 9/12/01.

    American troops waterboarded Vietnamese civilians and NVA during the war there. And they almost certainly did worse.

  13. cartomancer says

    Reginald Selkirk, #10

    While the use of torture to extract confessions was an important part of the whole witch-hunting business in early modern Europe, it was by no means universal. In fact it is telling that those jurisdictions where torture was mandated, such as the Holy Roman Empire under the Caroline Code (from 1530), tended to have far more witchcraft convictions than regions where torture was rare (such as Tudor and Stuart England, where the use of torture in a judicial context was by royally approved exception only). Though there are plenty of other legal factors to consider too, such as the rules of evidence expected in witchcraft trials and the extent to which legal systems were centralised or localised.

    Probably worth pointing out, too, that the actual Spanish Inquisition (and the other Catholic inquisitions of early modern Europe) had very little to do with witch hunting. In fact when they were called in to sort out witchcraft accusations they tended to dismiss them as mere superstition. The Inquisition was concerned with heresy, you see, particularly among recusant Jews and Muslims, and few Catholic thinkers in southern Europe (unlike many German theologians, particularly Protestants) regarded witchcraft as a form of heresy – a corrupt religious system based on errant doctrines that competed with Christianity for obedience.

    They were complete bastards to the converted Jews (conversos) and Muslims (moriscos) though. And, perhaps just as important, they were a valuable tool in the newly united Spanish monarchy’s repertoire for controlling their diverse kingdom.

  14. Pierce R. Butler says

    Marcus Ranum @ # 14: American troops waterboarded Vietnamese civilians and NVA …

    You can’t call that waterboarding – where’s the board??!?

    cartomancer @ # 15: … the actual Spanish Inquisition (and the other Catholic inquisitions of early modern Europe) had very little to do with witch hunting.

    The generally acknowledged spark to the witchhunts came in the form of the 1487 book Malleus Maleficarum, written by two Dominican friars and heartily endorsed by Pope Innocent VIII. I don’t recall the pursuit of witches as an official assignment of the Inquisition, but the literature of the witch hunts features numerous Inquisitors in prominent roles (see, e.g., Ioan P. Couliano, Eros and Magic in the Renaissance.

  15. cartomancer says

    Pierce R Butler, #16

    The Malleus did have some role in popularising important ideas about witchcraft – particularly that it is associated with demonology and thus has the character of an organised heretical conspiracy – but it was not the only important book, nor the first. Johannes Nider’s Formicarius pre-dates it by several decades, and the malleus contains several sections plagiarized from Nider. In fact the currents in millenarian theology that led ultimately to the Kramer-Sprenger view of witchcraft can be traced back at least to the aftermath of the Black Death in the fourteenth century.

    An interesting thing about Innocent VIII’s bull and the Malleus – the bull was not actually an endorsement of the book. It was issued before the book was even written, and only as a mandate to Kramer and Sprenger to investigate claims of witchcraft in southern Germany. When they eventually wrote the Malleus they added the bull as a frontispiece on the title page, in order to appear as if the book had papal sanction. Kramer in particular was something of a charlatan. He was even convicted of trying to steal silverware from the church at one stage. The Malleus, and demonological literature in general, never really found much favour south of the Alps. Venice is a notable exception (Kramer found very receptive audiences there for his later lecturing), but Venice had always had a strongly independent streak where Papal power was concerned.

    Which is not to say that no inquisitors were involved in witchcraft trials. The papal inquisition of Rome still maintained some claim on Catholic communities in Germany thanks to the complex mess of competing territorial claims going back to the Investiture Crisis. But it was Germany in particular that saw the most sustained and most frequent witch panics (Kramer and Sprenger were Germans), and under the Caroline Code witchcraft was persecuted as a civil offense, not a religious one. Papal Canon Law did not recognise witchcraft as a species of heresy, merely as misguided superstition. Inquisitors did tend to be experts in theology and law, however, and were exactly the kinds of people German communities turned to for expert advice in their witch trials. The role of university academics in these trials is also significant (and there was frequent overlap).