Guantánamo: psychologist tells of 'abusive drift' in treatment of terror suspects

Julian Borger in Guantánamo Bay
Guantánamo: psychologist tells of 'abusive drift' in treatment of terror suspects. James Mitchell gives pre-trial hearing a detailed account of the 2002 decision to use waterboarding and other techniques on al-Qaida leaders

A CIA contract psychologist who helped draft the US programme of “enhanced interrogation” of suspected terrorists has told a military tribunal he was unable to stop cases of “abusive drift” by an unnamed senior agency official.

Giving evidence at a military commission on Guantánamo Bay, James Mitchell gave a detailed account of the 2002 decision to interrogate suspected al-Qaida leaders using waterboarding and other techniques which the US later admitted constituted torture.

On Wednesday, the court was also showed cables from August 2002 between a CIA black site in Thailand and the agency headquarters outside Washington, in which Mitchell and his colleague said they wanted to stop waterboarding an al-Qaida suspect, Abu Zubaydah, because he was being cooperative and it was “highly unlikely” he would produce more intelligence.

The CIA staff at the site also said in a 10 August memo that the physical pressure applied on Abu Zubaydah until then “approaches the legal limit” and that his health was “likely to deteriorate to unacceptable levels”. But the next day, CIA headquarters replied, telling the interrogators to “stay the course”.

“They said we were pussies, that we had lost our spine,” Mitchell said, who claimed he threatened to quit. But Abu Zubaydah was subjected to further waterboarding the same month, at a demonstration for CIA officials, despite the prisoner having “involuntary stomach and leg spasms” and he was “distressed to the level that he was unable to effectively communicate or engage with the team”, according to an August 2002 memo.

At this week’s 40th pre-trial hearing of the 9/11 case in a specially built courtroom at the US naval base, Mitchell was watched with close attention by the five defendants. On the front row closest to the witness box was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the 2001 commercial plane attacks on New York and Washington, who was waterboarded 183 times.

In testimony which veered from the gruff to jokey to tearful, Mitchell said the methods he had recommended were based on a course given to US armed services to help them withstand enemy interrogation, known as Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (Sere).

Related: Guantánamo: psychologists who designed CIA torture program to testify

The measures, which included slamming detainees repeatedly against a wooden wall, cramming them in a small box sometimes with insects, and waterboarding, simulated drowning, had been approved by the justice department in July 2002 under the George W Bush administration.

Mitchell claimed those measures were within the limits of what was legal, and were designed to force detainees to give up information rapidly that could help prevent a further attack, possibly involving a nuclear weapon.

“The CIA was never interested in prosecution,” he told the court. “They were going to go right up to the line of what was legal, put their toes on it, and lean forward.”

However, within the official limits, Mitchell and up to two others subjected Abu Zubaydah to waterboarding 83 times and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed 183 times. Mitchell, his friend and future business partner, Bruce Jessen, and a veteran CIA officer known as the Preacher, were permitted to carry out waterboarding. As a private contractor working abroad, Mitchell was paid $1,800 a day.

He told the court that when he was recruited by the CIA in 2002 to first observe and then apply coercive measures, said the agency was determined to “get tough” and he wanted to make sure it was done within limits.

“What I was told was: ‘The gloves were off’,” Mitchell, now aged 68, a tall, thin man with a trimmed white beard, dressed in a charcoal suit and red tie. “They were going to use some form of physical coercion … My concern was that they were going to make it up on the fly.”

Mitchell has accused other CIA interrogators of using waterboarding far in excess of guidelines as well as other unauthorised interrogation techniques. In court on Tuesday he described these excesses as “abusive drift”.

Related: Inside the CIA’s black site torture room

“When people are left to make up coercive measures, it tends to escalate over time,” Mitchell said.

He said he had tried to stop several interrogations that had got out of hand, in particular by the head of interrogations of the CIA’s newly formed rendition, detention and interrogation group, an unnamed officer he referred to by the nickname, the “new sheriff”.

The head of interrogations has elsewhere been identified as Charlie Wise, who died of a heart attack soon after retiring in 2003. Before he left the CIA, Wise had a similarly dim view of what was going on, describing the interrogation programme as a train wreck “waiting to happen”.

“I intend to get the hell off the train before it happens,” Wise said in a declassified CIA memo.

In his evidence on Tuesday and Wednesday, the Tennessee-born Mitchell gave his version of events in a strong southern accent, pointing out he had voluntarily flown to Guantánamo Bay to give evidence.

“I didn’t do it for you,” he told James Connell, the defence lawyer questioning him on Tuesday. “I did it for the victims and families” of the 9/11 attacks.

On entering the plain square courtroom lined with military police guards, Mitchell appeared to make eye contact with Mohammed who he had subjected to multiple waterboarding sessions and with whom he claimed to have had long discussions about Islam.

Mohammed came to court in his customary outfit of a camouflage jacket over a white robe and a woollen Afghan cap. His dyed orange beard provided the brightest colour in the courtroom. His fellow defendants, Walid bin Attash, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Ammar al-Baluchi and Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi, sat in successive rows behind him, each with their own bench of lawyers. The pre-trial hearing have been underway since May 2012 and the trial itself is not expected to start until 2021 at the earliest.

Mitchell described how he was called to the CIA’s counter-terrorism centre in early April 2002 to attend a meeting where it was announced that a leading al-Qaida suspect, Abu Zubaydah, had been captured in Pakistan. Mitchell, who had previously worked as a psychologist for the US air force was told to get on a flight the same night to a secret CIA “black site” in what was called “location 3”, now widely believed to be Thailand.

He was initially asked to observe Abu Zubaydah’s interrogation by CIA officers and FBI agents and make suggestions. But when he returned to CIA headquarters at the beginning of July, he was asked to carry out the “enhanced” interrogations himself.

He said he was highly reluctant but there was a prevalent fear of an imminent second wave of attacks, possibly including a nuclear weapon.

Choking his words and tearing up as he defended his actions, he told the court: “I felt my moral obligation to protect American lives outweighed the temporary discomfort of terrorists who had taken up arms against America.”