Intercepted Bonus: Inside the Secretive Court at Guantanamo Bay as CIA Torture Architect Testifies

In this Intercepted bonus, The Intercept's Margot Williams on her reporting from the secretive war court at GTMO.

Photo Illustration: Elise Swain/The Intercept; Photos: Getty Images, Margot Williams/The Intercept

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Last month, The Intercept’s research editor Margot Williams reported from Camp Justice at Guantanamo Bay during an extraordinary moment in the 40th pre-trial hearing for the five men accused of plotting 9/11. The men are being charged with crimes that can result in the death penalty and pre-trial hearings have been continuing in this case since 2012. During this hearing, the architect of the CIA’s torture program, Dr. James Mitchell, was brought to the war court as a witness. This was the first time that Mitchell appeared in open court. Williams describes her reporting trip, Mitchell’s testimony, and how the legacy of CIA torture has impacted the 9/11 case for nearly eight years.


Jeremy Scahill: I’m Jeremy Scahill coming to you from the offices of The Intercept in New York City and this is a special bonus episode of Intercepted. Buried deep under headlines about Donald Trump’s impeachment “acquittal,” the Democratic primaries, Pete, Bernie, Bloomberg, was news out of Camp Justice in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Last month, the two masterminds of the CIA’s torture program were called as witnesses in a pre-trial hearing for the men accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks.

Amy Goodman: Dr. James Mitchell was in the courtroom for a pre-trial hearing for five 9/11 suspects she had been subject to torture euphemistically called “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

JS: When the capital trial at Guantanamo’s war court finally happens next year, in 2021, it will have been two decades since the crime took place. Here are some of the truths that have long been forgotten. The prison at Guantanamo is still open. The people who engineered torture were never held accountable and the men who may have been involved with the September 11 attacks have not yet been convicted. The problem of Guantanamo Bay has only been mentioned in one Democratic debate.

Yamiche Alcindor: Why couldn’t you close Guantanamo Bay? Why couldn’t the Obama administration close Guantanamo Bay?

Joe Biden: We attempted to close Guantanamo Bay but you have to have Congressional authority to do it. They’ve kept it open. And the fact is that we in fact, think it’s the greatest, it is an advertisement for creating terror —

JS: When Trump took office, he cancelled transfers for men who were cleared to leave the Guantanamo prison. He also campaigned to fill that prison back up.

Donald J. Trump: This morning, I watched President Obama talking about GTMO, right, Guantanamo Bay, which by the way, which by the way, we are keeping open, which we are keeping open and we’re going to load it up with some bad dudes, believe me, we’re gonna load it up.

JS: Of those 40 men who remain today at the Guantanamo Bay prison, five of them are now involved in what’s known as the 9/11 trial. For almost eight years, this infuriating and Kafka-esque case has dragged on. There have been at least 40 pre-trial hearings. The case is completely marred by CIA torture at black sites. Now, new questions about the FBI’s involvement have made a path to conviction even more clouded. The government’s obsession with keeping every detail classified continues to add fuel to an already out of control fire. Arguments abound over what can even be said in court. Most of what happened to these men where they were how they were treated, it’s classified. We’ve reported on Intercepted in the past that some of these men like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, known as KSM, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, first went through secret CIA operated outposts known as black sites. We heard reporter Carol Rosenberg talk about how the current CIA director, Gina Haspel, may have run a black site at Guantanamo Bay itself.

Carol Rosenberg: And I look at the words on the page, and I’m like Gina Haspel, ran a black site at Guantanamo? It’s been widely reported that she certainly ran a black site in Thailand. And the Guantanamo episode continues to be, you know, really mysterious. And then I begin, I go on a mission to try and figure out the truthfulness of this. And as you would know, Jeremy, those who know for sure can’t say, but those who know the program have a context where they can talk about it. I’m not saying it’s a fact. I’m saying this piece of information was declassified. The CIA won’t confirm it, they won’t deny it. One of the reasons it makes perfect sense is that what they have acknowledged is that she had a number of covert short term assignments that they will not describe throughout her career, and that would fit perfectly with it.

JS: Defense lawyers are over these years of pre-trial hearings have argued that because of CIA torture, and even Haspel’s past involvement, a fair trial for these men is impossible. Here are defense attorneys Alka Pradhan and James Connell, in a recent documentary called “The Trial” describing issues that they’ve faced as part of the legal team for Ammar al-Baluchi.

Alka Pradhan: This is a death penalty trial and we’re supposed to be entitled to every scrap of evidence that could be material to the case. Everywhere we go, we’re looking for information that we have not gotten from the U.S. government, like where they may have been held, which the government has said absolutely flat out they consider to be classified and will never tell us. That’s sort of crucial to the case.

James Connell: For years, everything that Ammar said was classified. You know, if he said, “Excuse me, can I go to the restroom?” That was classified. That was exceptionally complicated. One of the few things that we’ve sort of won the case is having that system rolled back. And so now his ordinary day-to-day communications are not classified. But even now, anything that he wants to say about his time in black sites, we have to have reviewed for classification. That’s just one example of self-inflicted wounds that the United States government imposes on itself and the people who work for it that make things super complicated.

JS: We’re going to hear more from Alka Pradhan in a moment. But first in January, The Intercept’s Margot Williams went down to Camp Justice at Guantanamo to cover an extraordinary moment at the war court where Dr. James Mitchell was brought in for questioning. Mitchell, of course, is the CIA contractor, who with no previous experience in interrogations, designed the so-called “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” program, which amounted to nothing but torture and produced zero results. Mitchell over the decades has not been quiet. He’s written a book called “Enhanced Interrogation.” He’s been the subject of a Vice documentary.

James Mitchell: You know, one of the rumors that I don’t remember which journalist it was started about me was that I somehow walked into the front gate of the Agency, banging on the door, said, you know, there’s torture to be done, let me in.

JS: And he’s given many interviews over the years.

JM: You know, the core problem lies at the way that the current versions of the Quran and the Hadiths and the violence that are in that are accepted as being the true word of Allah passed down unerringly — and our PC culture prevents us from challenging that.

JS: In a civil case in 2017, Mitchell and his partner in torture, Bruce Jessen, were questioned in a videotaped deposition.

Bruce Jessen: We were soldiers doing what we were instructed to do.

Sheri Fink (NYT): This is Bruce Jessen, a former military psychologist who became a CIA contractor and his colleague, James Mitchell.

JM: Any expertise in the art of interview? My god, I’m a clinical psychologist. Interviews are what we do.

SF: They’re now defendants in a case brought by some of the men tortured in those prisons: Suleiman Salim, Mohamed Ben Soud, and Obaidullah, the nephew of Gul Rahman, who died in custody.

JS: But that case against the two psychologists was settled. Mitchell and Jessen have never faced criminal prosecution. Mitchell appeared for the first time in open court last month. He’s previously admitted to personally waterboarding Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. In the Guantanamo court, he sat just yards away from that very prisoner. Margot Williams was there for all of it and while there, she brought her audio recorder and attended some press briefings from defense lawyers.

Alka Pradhan: Dr. Mitchell in particular, his book talks about how he knows some of the requirements came from the 9/11 commission, right? And given the volume of requirements that came directly from the FBI, you know, our guess would be that he had some knowledge, both of them had some knowledge that these were coming from the FBI and that there were FBI agents involved in Washington and the Pentagon who are coming up with these questions for the purposes of the 9/11 investigation. And that’s what we want to find out is: How much did they know while they were torturing these men.

JS: That was attorney Alka Pradhan, these briefings from the defense teams were the only audio Margot was allowed to record to explain more about this hearing and what she saw at Camp justice. Here is Margot Williams.

Margot Williams: I was at Guantanamo in January of this year to watch the 40th pre-trial hearing session in the trial against the 9/11 defendants who are detainees in Guantanamo.

I’m Margot from The Intercept, Margot Williams.


MW: When the media and the non-governmental observers and the family members of victims of the 9/11 attacks come down to Guantanamo to watch these hearings in person, we sit behind a glass in a kind of gallery and there’s four rows of chairs. We can see what’s going on in the courtroom. But what we hear is on a 40 second delay, and we see that 40 second delay video on screens above us. So, we can at the same time see what’s going on live and watch it, and hear it on a 40 second delay. The reason for the 40 second delay is that if any classified information gets mentioned, and we don’t have clearances to hear this classified information, they turn off the sound, they put white noise on and the screen goes to white.

[White noise.]

Alka Pradhan: This is probably one of the most consequential hearings we have had yet, rounding on the eighth year of pretrial hearings for the 9/11 case. And of course, during these two weeks, we will be taking the testimony of doctors Mitchell and Jessen who were involved in the inception of the CIA torture program.

[Music interlude.]

MW: This is the second time these five defendants in the 9/11 attacks have been brought before the military court. It’s a military court. It’s not like a regular court and it was originally the Bush administration [that] brought them before the court. And then when President Obama became president, and if you remember the first day of his administration, he said he was going to close Guantanamo.

Barack Obama: I’ve said repeatedly that I intend to close Guantanamo, and I will follow through on that. I’ve said repeatedly that America doesn’t torture. And I’m going to make sure that we don’t torture. Those are, those are part and parcel of an effort to regain America’s moral stature in the world.

MW: The idea was they were going to bring those charged to the U.S. and charge them with crimes under the federal judiciary, Southern District of New York. And then how Congress voted to not allow the Guantanamo detainees to come to the United States. They could not come to trial in the United States. So the trial had to start over again under the military commissions in Guantanamo. Since 2012, this case, which is the case against the 9/11 defendants, it’s a capital case. They are being charged with crimes that can result in the death penalty. And pre-trial hearings have been continuing in this case since 2012. This hearing was the 40th pretrial hearing.

AP: We’re going to hear about a lot of different things from doctors Mitchell and Jessen. And during these couple of weeks, we’re going to talk about the FBI’s deep involvement in what has been called up till now the CIA torture program, but in fact, is shaping up to have been a full government program of torture for these detainees that turned into a full government cover up for the purpose of the current prosecution and eventual execution of Mr. al-Baluchi.

[Music interlude.]

MW: Over the past couple of years, what the defense attorneys have been able to discover and put forward is that the FBI was also involved all along in the providing questions to the detainees while they were in the black sites. So the FBI did not have clean hands. They were not at arm’s length from the whole process while the defendants are being tortured. That’s kind of what the issue is right now. Should those interviews that the FBI did after 2006, should those be thrown out as well? And then what do they have to pursue for the case? 

Dr. James Mitchell and Dr. Bruce Jessen, they are psychologists and they were asked by the CIA to help come up with some techniques with which they could interrogate these top prisoners that were in CIA custody after their captures.

JM (in 2017): I disagree with the suggestion that we were architects because we weren’t breaking new ground, you know, in the sense that architects do.

MW: This is the first time they’ve appeared in open court and more significantly, I believe one of the reasons that a lot of press went down to Guantanamo to watch this was it was of course, the first time they had seen these five men that they knew from having interrogated them in the past. So, the defendants were for the first time facing the men who had interrogated them in CIA black sites.

Rosiland Jordan: Are you able to say how your client reacted to watching him today?

MW: Mr. Ruiz told us that when he asked Mr. al-Hawsawi about what he thought of Mitchell, he kind of shrugged and said arrogant.

Walter Ruiz: The one word he used was he’s arrogant. So he said arrogant. He also described him as angry when he had the run-in with him in 2003, the one episode. But his main reaction really was not so much to Mitchell but was he was actually very appreciative.

RJ: What do you mean by that? Appreciative that somebody, that he had seen when he was first brought here has actually been brought in to explain what he was doing?

WR: No, he was appreciative of our efforts on his behalf in a way that was moving.

MW: Ruiz was quite outspoken in his questioning of Dr. Mitchell. He confronted Dr. Mitchell repeatedly with incidents that he characterized as torture. At the end of the day, he played a clip in which Dr. Mitchell himself kind of made a joke about the use of the word torture.

JM: We never used the word “torture” — cause torture’s a crime. [Laughter.] Well, it gets used colloquially. And he used the word torture although he didn’t say torture. He said torches.

Mike Ritland: I mean, to me it’s fucking semantics. But at any rate —

MW: Attorney Ruiz said after objections to the word torture by the prosecution, “I know torture is a dirty word. I’ll tell you what, Judge I’m not going to sanitize this for their concerns.”

[Music interlude.]

MW: In this hearing a lot of psychological terminology was used to make it sound like there’s an academic and scientific logic and method to the kind of techniques — I’m saying techniques — the kind of torture that was used on these prisoners. Some of the phrases used were “intelligence requirements,” “abusive drift,” “countermeasures to resistance,” “Pavlovian response,” “learned helplessness,” “negative reinforcement,” “a conditioning strategy.” They showed a chart of “moral disengagement.”

One of the techniques is something called “walling” in which the guy is thrown against the wall, and the wall is safe because it’s made of plywood and it’s constructed so that it bounces. It’s not solid. When walling is used the term walling, they use a beach towel to wrap around the prisoners neck so he won’t be harmed. And then later, even when they’re in a non-coercive situation, they take the towel, these doctors, took the towel and put it just so that the prisoner could see them. So they would know that if they did not behave, or answer the questions, that they might have to have that towel around their neck and be thrown against the wall again.

They called it a “Pavlovian tool.” And so these same guys were in the room, being reminded of what they had endured as prisoners in the black sites by the sight of the people who had used these methods on them.

[Music interlude.]

It’s not as if I’m overwhelmed by it because I’ve spent 18 years reading testimony and reports about torture. It was striking in this proceeding at these hearings with Dr. Mitchell who actually conducted these interrogations and debriefings and used these what he calls techniques. And I’m using that word too but the preponderance of euphemism in these proceedings did kind of overwhelm me.

JS: Margot Williams is the research editor for investigations at The Intercept. Years before names were publicly released, Margot compiled the first list of the Guantanamo detainees and assembled a comprehensive GTMO database for the New York Times. Her latest article for The Intercept is titled “At Guantanamo Bay, torture apologists take refuge in empty codewords and euphemisms.” More of Margot’s reporting on the pre-trial hearing of James Mitchell can be found at Margot Williams spoke with Intercepted associate producer Elise Swain. And that does it for this special bonus episode of Intercepted. Until next week, I’m Jeremy Scahill.

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