A retired Air Force psychologist widely considered the architect of the CIA's "enhanced interrogation" program confirmed to VICE News today what has been an open secret for the past decade — that he was under contract to the agency after 9/11 and that he was "part" of the program.
Dr. James Mitchell has been identified in dozens of news reports and investigations conducted by Congress and human rights groups as being the central figure who devised the CIA's controversial enhanced interrogation techniques used on high-value detainees, which included waterboarding. But Mitchell has never been able to confirm the specific role he played in the top-secret program — and whether the allegations about him were accurate — because he signed a non-disclosure agreement with the CIA that prohibited him from discussing it. The CIA has also never confirmed his role in the program or declassified any aspect of his involvement.
On Tuesday, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released a scathing 525-page summary on the history of the CIA's detention and interrogation program. The declassified summary, part of a larger 6,700-page report that remains classified, concluded, "Two contract psychologists devised the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques and played a central role in the operation, assessments, and management of the CIA's Detention and Interrogation Program."
Mitchell is one of the psychologists. He is identified in the report with the pseudonym Grayson Swigert. The report said "CIA Headquarters chose the most coercive interrogation option, which was proposed and supported by CIA contractor SWIGERT."
A day after the Senate released its study, VICE News released The Architect, a documentary on Mitchell. In the interview, which took place prior to the release of the Senate report and marks the first time Mitchell spoke on-camera to a news organization after 9/11, he was confronted with questions about his role in the enhanced interrogation program. But he declined to give answers due to the non-disclosure agreement.
'Being an [Air Force] psychologist taught me about the sorts of mental states associated with interrogations. We got an opportunity to see a variety of people attempting to withhold actionable intelligence.'
"You know I'd really like to respond to those questions, but I can't," Mitchell told VICE News. "I can't even confirm or deny or anything. I have a non-disclosure agreement that covers some of my activities. Until I'm released from that I can't answer those kinds questions, although I'd… love to be able to clarify some of the things that people are saying, because a lot of what people are saying is inaccurate."
After the release of the Senate report and VICE News' interview with him, Mitchell was bombarded with media inquiries and was the subject of dozens of news reports. Late Wednesday, he was informed by the CIA that he could now confirm that he was under contract to the agency and "that I was part of the enhanced interrogation program," Mitchell told us. "I haven't been given permission to say anything else."
He says he is eager to discuss specific aspects of the program in order to "set the record straight." But he needs prior approval from the CIA to answer specific questions. According to the Senate report, Mitchell is the interrogator who personally waterboarded accused 9/11 mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
The Senate report says that in June 2003, Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, the other retired Air Force psychologist who was part of the program and who is identified in the report by the pseudonym Hammond Dunbar, traveled to one of the CIA's black sites "to interrogate KSM, as well as to assess KSM's 'psychological stability' and 'resistance posture.' As described later in this summary, the contractors had earlier subjected KSM to the waterboard and other CIA enhanced interrogation techniques."
The Senate Intelligence Committee's executive summary also says that the company Mitchell formed after 9/11 specifically to provide interrogation services to the CIA was well-paid for its efforts, to the tune of $81 million.
Mitchell told VICE News he could not discuss specific details about his contract, which was terminated in 2009, until he receives approval from the agency.
Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein singled out Mitchell and Jessen — though not by name — in an introduction to the study and in a Senate floor speech she delivered hours after the report was released in which she said they tortured detainees and broke the law.
"CIA personnel, aided by two outside contractors, decided to initiate a program of indefinite secret detention and the use of brutal interrogation techniques in violation of US law, treaty obligations, and our values," Feinstein wrote in the introduction to the executive summary.
Mitchell was harshly critical of the report. He told VICE News it was "biased," and said the "truth about the enhanced interrogation program lies somewhere in the Democrats' report and the CIA and Republican response" to the Intelligence Committee.
The Senate committee's executive summary examined the treatment of 20 CIA captives and the value of the intelligence they provided after they were subjected to "enhanced interrogation" techniques. The summary includes previously undisclosed details about sexual threats detainees endured during interrogation sessions, including one in which an interrogator threatened to sodomize al Qaeda facilitator Abu Zubaydah — the first captive who was waterboarded — with a broomstick. The CIA also threatened to murder detainees and their families, the Senate's executive summary says.
"At least five CIA detainees were subjected to 'rectal rehydration' or rectal feeding without documented medical necessity," according to the summary. "The CIA placed detainees in ice water 'baths.' The CIA led several detainees to believe they would never be allowed to leave CIA custody alive, suggesting to one detainee that he would only leave in a coffin-shaped box. One interrogator told another detainee that he would never go to court, because 'we can never let the world know what I have done to you.' CIA officers also threatened at least three detainees with harm to their families — to include threats to harm the children of a detainee, threats to sexually abuse the mother of a detainee, and a threat to 'cut [a detainee's] mother's throat.'"
The report goes on to say that neither Mitchell nor Jessen had any experience as an interrogator, nor did either have specialized knowledge of al Qaeda, a background in counterterrorism, or any relevant cultural or linguistic expertise.
Mitchell disputed the assertion. He told VICE News he has decades of experience in interrogations and in dealing with the "types of people" who withhold "actionable intelligence."
"Being a psychologist taught me about mental states, working as long as I did in Air Force survival school," he told us. "Thirteen years, something like 14,000 hours inside the lab, taught me about the sort of mental states that are associated with interrogations…. We got an opportunity to see a variety of people — all kinds of races, all kinds of intelligence, all kinds of backgrounds — attempting to withhold actionable intelligence."
Kaj Larsen and Brooke Workneh contributed to this report.
Follow Jason Leopold on Twitter: @JasonLeopold