At a catered breakfast in downtown D.C. Tuesday, James Mitchell – a contract psychologist who served as an interrogator and central architect of the CIA’s torture program – advocated for a return to “some form of legal coercion” for terror suspects.
In 2001, Mitchell, along with a colleague John “Bruce” Jessen, worked as a psychologist with an Air Force program designed to help American detainees resist torture tactics. After 9/11, without any prior experience conducting interrogations, the two founded a consulting company that was paid $81 million dollars by the CIA to weaponize those training tactics to torture CIA detainees.
On Tuesday, Mitchell was promoting his new book, Enhanced Interrogation: Inside the Minds and Motives of the Islamic Terrorists Trying to Destroy America, to an audience at the American Enterprise Institute, a neoconservative think tank. Mitchell’s book dismisses the widely held criticism that torture does not work, describing in detail his role in interrogations, which included slamming prisoners into walls, known as walling, and waterboarding them.
President Barack Obama banned those methods in 2009, and Congress followed suit in 2015 by passing a law limiting interrogation techniques to those listed in the Army field manual.
Mitchell argued that the U.S. should not necessarily shy away from controversial techniques. “Somewhere between waterboarding and worse, and what’s in the army field manual, I think there needs to be some form of legal – let me emphasize that – legal coercion, to move them along so that you can start using social influence to get them talking again.”
Mitchell blamed “political correctness” for condemnation of such techniques, and urged Trump to adopt harsher methods.
“I would ask president-elect Trump this: What are you going to do when you have credible evidence of another pending, catastrophic attack… that could potentially involve nuclear weapons, and the person you’re interrogating or questioning isn’t responding to the Army Field Manuel?”
“At some point,” he continued, “if this obsessive political correctness continues, we’re going to be standing on the moral high ground, looking down into a smoking hole, that used to be several blocks in Los Angles.”
Mitchell and Jessen are currently facing a civil suit from two former torture victims, and the estate of Gul Rahman – who was tortured to death in a the CIA prison called the “Salt Pit.” The American Civil Liberties Union attorneys assisting with the case say that the executive summary of the Senate Torture Report, which was released in 2014, provides more than enough evidence to establish the role of the two men in the CIA torture program.
According to Senate investigators, Mitchell and Jessen signed an indemnification contract with the CIA in 2007, in which the CIA agreed pay legal damages for the two men going forward. At the time the Senate report was released, the agency had already paid out $1 million.
Despite the prospect of the civil suit, Mitchell talked openly about waterboarding and walling detainees. Mitchell asserted his methods were not illegal, because they were authorized by lawyers who subjected themselves to the same methods.
Mitchell claimed that he “personally waterboarded an assistant attorney general,” who authorized the technique just a few days later. “The time to tell me that it wasn’t torture was when that attorney general got off of the waterboard,” said Mitchell.
Acting assistant attorney General Daniel Levin requested in 2004 that he experience waterboarding firsthand before he opined on its legality, ABC News reported three years later. He was later forced out of the Department of Justice while authoring a memo that would have imposed tighter controls on torture techniques.
Mitchell, for his part, joked that he wouldn’t mind waterboarding more lawyers. “I waterboarded almost as many lawyers as I did terrorists,” he said. “I’m one down.”
The line was met with laughter.
In his book Pay Any Price, New York Times Journalist James Risen documents how the American Psychological Association quietly revised its ethics rules in 2002 to allow certified psychologists to work with the torture program. Emails obtained by the Intercept in April 2015 show that the CIA and APA had a close relationship, even cohosting a conference in 2003 titled “The Science of Deception.”
Mitchell called the accusations of collusion between the APA and the CIA “poppycock,” and “crap.” Speaking about the APA, who has since condemned Mitchell’s action, Mitchell said “those people are not part of my life. I don’t care what they think.”
Sarah Dougherty, a senior fellow with Physicians for Human Rights, argued that it was inexcusable for Mitchell to go on a public relations tour.
“Mitchell admits he ‘uses psychology as a weapon against those sent to destroy us to get intelligence,’” said Dougherty. “What he conveniently omits is that weaponizing psychology to undermine and harm people is a profoundly unethical application of those skills.”
“Health professionals have ethics for a reason,” she said. “He knowingly violated them.”