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When James Mitchell started crafting the CIA’s so-called “torture program” more than a decade ago, he knew he’d eventually end up in front of a military court. But that doesn’t mean he was happy when that day finally arrived.
“I suspected from the beginning that I would eventually end up here,” Mitchell, a psychologist and retired Air Force contractor, told a military commission at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba on Tuesday.
“I think the CIA was representing America at the tip of the spear,” he continued. “You may feel differently, but I don’t.”
In his first public testimony about the program, Mitchell struck an amiably defiant tone, jousting with the defense counsel and encouraging the courtroom to buy more copies of his book. He also described a desperate, post-9/11 mindset that sent the CIA grasping for fresh tactics, even ones that crossed moral and legal lines. And he universally defended those actions in court.
“It felt at the agency like we were in a running gun battle,” said Mitchell, claiming he was told al-Qaeda had obtained biological and possibly nuclear weapons.
“I never thought of it as a ‘Dr. Mitchell’ mission,” he said. “I didn’t even think of it as a CIA thing; I thought of it as an America mission, because we were trying to stop that next attack.”
The grey-haired Mitchell appeared at the notorious military prison on Tuesday, where five accused al-Qaeda members stand charged with helping to plan and finance the 2001 tragedy that left nearly 3,000 dead. If convicted, they face the death penalty. Mitchell — to his admitted surprise — appeared for the defense, which argues that because the defendants were tortured at CIA “black sites” around the world, their statements are irrevocably tainted.
“We were trying to stop that next attack.”
Mitchell, one of two CIA psychologists scheduled to testify this week, set the mood early. James Connell, the attorney who led the questioning, opened by thanking Mitchell for voluntarily coming to testify. “I actually did it for the victims and families, not for you,” Mitchell responded. He offered spiky answers to basic questions, while also declaring his eagerness to help.
“I’m happy to talk about my role in the program and what the program did,” he said. Later, Mitchell added: “You folks have been saying untrue and malicious things about me and Dr. Jessen for years. For years.”
Connell offered Mitchell a chance to correct the record, particularly around the prevalence of detainee torture. “Dr. Mitchell is sometimes portrayed as a rogue actor,” Connell said.
In reality, he was a contractor, part of a much larger system involving the CIA, FBI, and others. He personally waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who’s accused of planning the 9/11 attacks alongside Osama bin Laden. On Tuesday, the two sat just feet apart, facing each other across the courtroom.
All five defendants in the case were tortured, according to the defense; lawyers argue that because the practice was so widespread, with no clear lines drawn between agencies that did and didn’t use extreme techniques, any statements obtained in that environment can’t be considered “voluntary.” Under the military commission rules established for trials at Guantánamo Bay, coerced information can’t be used.
Mitchell — who often referred to detainees as “subjects” and “clients” in his testimony — acknowledged the torture program extended far beyond his purview. He too described himself as a contractor, who offered recommendations but had no power to implement them or any control over how his advice spread to other areas of the system.
“I was a green badger,” he said, referring to the badge given to non-employees. “Green badgers don’t run the CIA; blue badgers [government employees] do.”
Yet when pressed by his colleagues to perform interrogations and told he was the only one who could do them, Mitchell agreed. Hel teared up while describing staying up late in a hotel room, pouring over what he saw as imminent threats. He made his decision.
“I thought of my moral obligation to protect American lives against the temporary discomfort of terrorists who took up arms against America,” he said. “I decided I would just live with it.”
Later, he added, “Let me tell you just so you know. If it were today, I would do it again.”
Mitchell may portray himself as a small cog in a larger machine, but his testimony, along with that of his partner, Bruce Jessen, could change the direction of the trial.
If the judge decides the torture program undermines statements given by the defendants, the government’s case could be in serious jeopardy the most consequential trial to come out of Guantánamo Bay could be at its most precarious point yet — after decades of legal wrangling in both civilian and military courts.
Cover image: In this photo reviewed by U.S. military officials, a hospital bed is shown inside the converted Camp V detention facility, Wednesday, April 17, 2019, in Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)