The psychologist regarded as the architect of the CIA's “enhanced interrogation” program has broken a seven-year silence to defend the use of torture techniques against al-Qaida terror suspects in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
In an uncompromising and wide-ranging interview with the Guardian, his first public remarks since he was linked to the program in 2007, James Mitchell was dismissive of a Senate intelligence committee report on CIA torture in which he features, and which is currently at the heart of an intense row between legislators and the agency.
The committee’s report found that the interrogation techniques devised by Mitchell, a retired air force psychologist, were far more brutal than disclosed at the time, and did not yield useful intelligence. These included waterboarding, stress positions, sleep deprivation for days at a time, confinement in a box and being slammed into walls.
But Mitchell, who was reported to have personally waterboarded accused 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, remains unrepentant. “The people on the ground did the best they could with the way they understood the law at the time,” he said. “You can't ask someone to put their life on the line and think and make a decision without the benefit of hindsight and then eviscerate them in the press 10 years later.”
The 6,600-page, $40m Senate report is still secret, but a summary of its 20 conclusions and findings, obtained by McClatchy News, alluded to the role Mitchell and another psychologist under contract to the CIA, Bruce Jessen, played in the torture program.
The committee's chair, Democrat Dianne Feinstein, has said the report “exposes brutality that stands in stark contrast to our values as a nation”. She added: "It chronicles a stain on our history that must never again be allowed to happen.”
Mitchell said: “I’m skeptical about the Senate report, because I do not believe that every analyst whose jobs and promotions depended upon it, who were professional intelligence experts, all them lied to protect a program? All of them were wrong? All of these [CIA] directors were wrong? All of the people who were using the intel to go get people were wrong? And 10 years later a Senate staffer was able to put it together and finally there’s clarity? I am just highly skeptical that that’s the truth.”
While he refused to discuss specific details of the program because he is bound by a non-disclosure agreement, he defended it in general terms as a success.
“I don’t get annoyed about the program,” he said. “I get annoyed the way the good parts, and the bad parts, have been glossed over and how some good parts have been vilified.”
He insisted that the torture techniques he developed had produced results, and was derisive of critics of the program, such as former FBI special agent Ali Soufan, who says standard rapport-building techniques he used in interrogations were far more effective for obtaining information from detainees.
Mitchell said: “You’re asked to believe he [Soufan] was getting all of this great information and the CIA said: ‘Well, never mind. We’re not interested in that information. We’re not interested in the truth. We’re going to do this other thing. Why? Because we’re mean?' I worked for a lot of different organizations and they really care about results.”
He said the context in which the program was developed, in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks, was being ignored in the current debate: “The big fear was some sort of a radiological device … It's really easy, 13 years later, when there's been no device, when all those people who were trying to build them were either killed or captured … to come along later and say 'I could have done it better, this stuff was illegal.' It was not illegal based on the law at the time.”
Starting in 2002, the Department of Justice issued a series of top-secret legal opinions stating the interrogation techniques did not violate US laws against torture. But according to the summary obtained by McClatchy, the Senate report concludes that these opinions were based on misleading information provided by the CIA.
The CIA is currently facing battles on two fronts over its use of torture on terror suspects. The agency is embroiled in an unprecedented public row with Feinstein, who has accused it of violating the law by monitoring computers her committee's staff use to compile the report.
Meanwhile, allegations of abuse have taken center stage in the prosecutions of detainees at GuantÃ¡namo. The military judge overseeing the tribunals has ordered the CIA to provide a detailed account of the detention and interrogation in one of its secret prisons overseas of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who is charged with orchestrating the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000, which killed 17 US sailors. Lawyers for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four others charged over the 9/11 attacks say they are seeking similar orders.
Mitchell, who said he was a supporter of Amnesty International, denied any involvement in the abuse of detainees at GuantÃ¡namo. In 2009, a scathing report from the Senate armed services committee report found that the coercive interrogations originated from techniques developed by the psychologists.
“We didn't have a damn thing to do with that,” Mitchell said. Instead, he said, the blame lay with Pentagon contractors and civilian staff “who wanted to help out and made some dumb mistakes”.
But Kathleen Long, a spokeswoman for the committee, said the information in its report was accurate.
Steven Kleinman, an air force colonel who participated in interrogations in Iraq and who is credited with blowing the whistle on abuses taking place there, told the Guardian he did not understand how Mitchell could still believe torture methods that generated false confessions could also produce “reliable, accurate and timely intelligence”.
“Why would anybody think that a model that would produce those outcomes would also be effective in producing the opposite?” Kleinman said.