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Pasco man, behind CIA interrogation program, defends actions

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Published:   |   Updated: April 23, 2014 at 07:54 AM

The man widely considered to be an architect of the CIA’s controversial enhanced interrogation techniques program is a retired Air Force psychologist living in Land O’ Lakes who likens the use of waterboarding and other methods now considered torture to “good cop/bad cop” interrogation efforts employed by law enforcement.

““In effect, the [techniques] were the ‘bad cop’ part of a more subtle, sophisticated and harsher version of the ‘good cop/bad cop’ approach to interrogation,” says James Elmer Mitchell, 63, of methods employed by the CIA in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. “It had to be more subtle because...senior terrorists have been trained to recognize and resist interrogation techniques. If they recognized the techniques employed against them, they would have a better chance of withholding sought-after information.”

The techniques were effective, says Mitchell. Others say they did more harm than good for national security.

Mitchell, however, says a hotly debated U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA’s interrogation program will likely come to the wrong conclusions.

The still-secret 6,300-plus-page report, which took six years and $40 million to produce, “calls into question the legal foundation of the CIA’s use of waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques on suspected terrorists, a finding that challenges the key defense on which the agency and the Bush administration relied in arguing that the methods didn’t constitute torture,” according to McClatchy Newspapers, which says it obtained the report’s conclusions.

Florida Republican Marco Rubio was one of three Senators on the committee voting against declassifying the report.

“Unfortunately, the study has pitted the Senate Intelligence Committee against the CIA and distracted us from focusing on the many threats facing our national security,” Rubio said in a statement.

“I am highly skeptical that it will be accurate,” says Mitchell, who has not seen the report. “It is a politicized rewriting of history. What they are asking you to believe is that the people who used the information to go out and capture and kill people were either lying or too incompetent to realize the information had no value.”

Mitchell, who last week gave his first interview to The Guardian newspaper, says he cannot talk about what, if any role, he had with the CIA because of non-disclosure agreements he signed with the agency. But in a series of telephone interviews Monday, he walked right up to the line.

“I thought we were under attack by radical Islamists who were trying to kill as many people as they could, I was asked by the country to contribute to the cause, and I did,” says Mitchell. “I had a lot of concerns about events and activities and that sort of stuff. I did what I could to resolve ethical dilemmas there, for not just me, but for everyone involved in it.”

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Mitchell says he grew up poor in the Tampa area and moved frequently around the Southeast during his youth,

“When I was a pre-schooler, we lived in various sharecropper situations,” says Mitchell. “The first school I went to was a one-room school house with six grades in Wiliamson, Georgia. I was raised by my grandmother.”

In 1975, Mitchell joined the Air Force, “as a bomb disposal guy,” he says.

It was during this time that he became interested in the mindset of those who plant improvised explosive devices.

“The folks who were devising weapons were targeting bomb disposal people,” says Mitchell. “I had to know something about what the motivations behind that were.”

Aside from bomb disposal, Mitchell also served as a hostage negotiator at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.

After about a half dozen years, Mitchell says he left the Air Force, only to return later after earning a masters degree in psychology from the University of Alaska. He did an internship at an Air Force teaching hospital, then received his doctorate degree in psychology from the University of South Florida in 1986, before being assigned to Fairchild Air Force Base in Washington State where he was chief of psychology at the Air Force survival school. He says he was also loaned out to the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency at the base, which oversees all military survival training, as well as Air Force Special Operations Command and other units.

In 1996, he was assigned to Air Force Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, retiring as a lieutenant colonel shortly before 9/11.

“I had 13 years experience with resistance to interrogation training,” says Mitchell, who declined to go into specifics about his time with Air Force Special Operations. But during his years at the survival school, he says that in addition to training troops on how to not give up classified information during harsh interrogation, he also debriefed prisoners of war from the first Gulf War on “the psychological aspects of their captivity.”

At some point, Mitchell says he had a contract with the CIA ,the details of which he cannot discuss.

The CIA has declined comment about Mitchell.

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On Aug. 1, 2002, Jay Bybee, an assistant attorney general in the George W. Bush administration, wrote an 18-page memo, since unclassified, to acting CIA general counsel John Rizzo, explaining that waterboarding and other methods did not violate U.S. law prohibiting torture. The policy was eventually approved by the Bush administration. Rizzo was seeking an opinion on whether it was legal to use the techniques against Abu Zubaydah, a captured high-ranking al-Qaida leader.

But the techniques, and the reasons used to justify them, have since been repudiated.

“I could not disagree more with the model they proposed for interrogation,” says Steven Kleinman, an Air Force Reserve colonel and frequent critic of the enhanced interrogation techniques. “It is based on a model designed to coerce false confessions and propaganda, the opposite of intelligence.”

Kleinman knew Mitchell and his partner in the CIA interrogation program, another Air Force psychologist named Bruce Jessen, from when all three spent time at Fairchild Air Force Base in Washington working for or with the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency. Among other things, the JPRA oversees the military’s Survival, Evasion Resistance and Escape training program known as SERE.

Mitchell and Jessen, both psychologists, were experts in helping troops resist harsh interrogation, says Kleinman.

“They were key minds in how this nation developed arguably the best resistance to interrogation programs in the world,” he says. But the two helped usher in a “dark chapter in America” when the CIA tried to develop an interrogation program based on experiences with resistance training, says Kleinman.

A declassified 2004 CIA Office of Inspector General report on the techniques states that the CIA’s Office of Medical Services “contends that the expertise of the SERE psychologist/interrogators on the waterboard was probably misrepresented at the time, as the SERE waterboard experience is so different from the subsequent Agency usages as to make it almost irrelevant.” The report does not name the interrogators.

In a declassified 2005 memo, Rizzo, by this time CIA senior deputy counsel, stated that the techniques were “imported from” the SERE training, with the major difference being that military personnel knew they were training, while detainees actually underwent interrogation.

“It was absolutely torture,” says Kleinman of the techniques developed by Mitchell and Jessen, who did not return a call seeking comment. But the onus for that falls on CIA hierarchy, says Kleinman.

“How is it that people think two retired lieutenant colonels forced their way into the senior halls of intelligence and said, ‘here is how we are going to do it, like it or not,’” says Kleinman. “They were recruited to do this. Encouraged to do this. I think when fault is parsed out, they have been getting it full bore, but their role is actually quite small. The question is, how come (CIA director at the time) George Tenet got a Medal of Freedom? He had to sign off on the techniques and argue to the President that it was legal and helpful. Jim and Bruce were just toiling away, doing what they were paid to do. They were not policy makers, they were consultants.”

Tenet, through a spokesman, declined comment.

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On Jan. 22, 2009, President Barack Obama signed Executive Order 13491 prohibiting the future use of waterboarding and other enhanced interrogation techniques.

Mitchell, who says he doubts he will see his name in the Senate Intelligence Committee report on the program, says he still believes he did the right thing.

“Col. Kleinman can have his opinion about whether it was torture,” he says. Without specifying what he did or who he did it for, Mitchell says that “at that particular time we were told by the highest legal authority in the land that the things we were being asked to do were legal. I am not a Constitutional lawyer, but if it took the partisan Democrats $40 million and six years to figure it out, how does a person like me figure it out in real time on the ground? I did what I thought was necessary to protect our country.”

haltman@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7629

@haltman

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