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Psychologist James Mitchell Admits He Waterboarded al Qaeda Suspects

In an exclusive interview with VICE News, the architect of the CIA's enhanced interrogation program confirms his role and reveals concerns he raised to the CIA about 'abuses.'
Photo by Claire Ward/VICE News

The retired Air Force psychologist who for more than a decade has been identified as the "architect" of the CIA's "enhanced interrogation" program confirmed for the first time Sunday that he waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks.

"Yes, I waterboarded KSM. I was part of a larger team that waterboarded a small number of detainees," Dr. James Mitchell said in an exclusive interview with VICE News. The other detainees who Mitchell subjected to the simulated drowning method — one of 10 enhanced interrogation techniques (EITs) approved by the Justice Department in 2002 — at top-secret black site prisons included both al Qaeda facilitator Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who was accused of planning the bombings of two American embassies and the USS Cole.


"The whole point of the waterboard was to induce fear and panic," Mitchell said. "We didn't think [detainees were] going to provide actionable intelligence in a state of fear and panic. You have to start the session with the waterboarding, but the questioning happens the next time you come in the room. It's like any sort of thing you fear: The closer you get to it the next time, the more you struggle to get out of it and find an escape. So the moment [a detainee] was most susceptible to beginning to provide information was just before the next waterboarding session. Not in the original one."

'The Architect,' VICE News' documentary about James Mitchell. Watch it here.

Last week, Mitchell and his longtime friend and former business partner Dr. Bruce Jessen — also a retired Air Force psychologist — were identified, albeit by pseudonyms, in an explosive 525-page executive summary released by the Senate Intelligence Committee that laid bare the history of the CIA's detention and interrogation program.

The executive summary contains disturbing new details about the interrogation techniques to which CIA detainees were subjected, the grave conditions of their confinement, and the value of the intelligence interrogators gleaned from them. The chairwoman of the committee, Senator Dianne Feinstein, said in an introduction to the report that she believes detainees in the custody of the CIA were tortured, and that the intelligence gleaned after detainees were subjected to the techniques did not produce any unique or valuable intelligence.


But Mitchell, who admitted he is "biased," said valuable intelligence was obtained, particularly in the case of Abu Zubaydah, who Mitchell said provided interrogators with the operational structure of al Qaeda that the CIA continues to rely upon.

A day after the Senate released its study, VICE News released The Architect, a documentary about Mitchell. In that 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 a non-disclosure agreement he signed with the CIA.

After the release of both the Senate report and the documentary, Mitchell was bombarded with media inquiries and has since been the subject of dozens of news reports that identified him as one of the pseudonymous psychologists in the Senate document.

Now the CIA has loosened the decade-long restrictions that prohibited him from confirming his role in the interrogation program.

"I'm just done holding back," he said.

* * *

"There were some abuses that occurred" at the black sites, Mitchell acknowledged. The Senate report says the CIA "marginalized and ignored numerous internal critiques, criticisms, and objections concerning the operation and management of the CIA's Detention and Interrogation Program." But what the report omitted, according to Mitchell, is that he and Jessen were the unnamed interrogators identified in the Senate report who raised many of the concerns about "abuses" and "unauthorized techniques" that were used on detainees. Moreover, Mitchell said he is also one of the interrogators who reported abuses to the CIA's inspector general, which sparked an internal review of the CIA program.


It's why he believes the Senate Intelligence Committee "cherry-picked" details from the more than 6 million classified CIA documents they reviewed.

"They reviewed the [CIA] documents and they mentioned the complaints that I made in their report," Mitchell told VICE News. "But they never said it was me. I was one of the people in the report who raised the concerns on multiple occasions."

Several former CIA officials have corroborated Mitchell's story. So why didn't the committee note that it was Mitchell and Jessen who complained?

"From my perspective, the Senate Democrats held a star chamber, decided I was guilty of something… went into the CIA's 6 million pages of records, produced enough evidence to support their conclusion, and essentially issued a fatwa on me and Bruce," Mitchell said. "They did this without having the courtesy to talk to me. Even if they found my behavior despicable, I should have had the chance to defend myself."

An aide to Feinstein said there is more information about Mitchell and Jessen in the full report.

"The executive branch insisted on redactions to information in the executive summary that prevents the committee from describing all of the interactions between people at detention facilities, including by redacting some information about some cable references," the aide said. "Also, the executive branch required the committee to use these two pseudonyms, so we can't verify or refute the identities of people now speaking publicly about the program."


* * *

One of the findings in the executive summary is that the CIA program was devised and managed by Mitchell and Jessen, who are identified as Grayson Swigert and Hammond Dunbar respectively. Mitchell confirmed that he is Swigert.

He also confirmed some details of the Senate's executive summary concerning the genesis of the program, specifically that he and Jessen were asked in the winter of 2002 by the CIA's Office of Technical Services (OTS), with which Mitchell was under contract, to review the Manchester Manual, referred to by the Senate as the "al Qaeda manual."

Police in Manchester, England discovered the Manchester Manual on a computer in 2000 during the search of the home of an al Qaeda operative suspected of playing a role in the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings. Mitchell told VICE News that according to what he has heard, the resistance techniques in the Manchester Manual were based on the same resistance techniques taught to US military personnel during survival training. A US Army Special Forces major who volunteered to fight with the mujahideen against the Russians in Afghanistan in the 1980s stole US resistance training manuals and gave them to the fighters, many of whom would later join al Qaeda. In his diaries, Abu Zubaydah mentions manuals dealing with resistance to interrogation that the mujahideen obtained from the US (and subsequently translated into Arabic).

'You don't expect to get any information from the person on the first waterboarding. What you're trying to do is induce enough fear and panic in the first session that when you come back for the second session several hours later, he's willing to talk to you.'


According to the Department of Justice, "the 18-chapter [Manchester Manual] provides a detailed window into al Qaeda's network and its procedures for waging jihad." It also contains lessons on how to resist interrogations, gather information on the enemy, carry out kidnappings and assassinations, follow security precautions, and organize safe houses and hiding places.

The CIA had claimed that Zubaydah was the author of the resistance techniques contained in the Manchester manual. But the Senate report said, "a review of CIA records found no information to support these claims."

"I had a contract with OTS, and I happened to be in the [CIA] building [in Langley]," Mitchell told VICE News. "I would go to CIA and brief them. Around the winter of 2002, I was asked by a person who knew me and knew my background to take a look at the manual, review the resistance techniques in the manual, and provide descriptions of what the detainees' behavior would look like during the interrogations if they deployed those techniques. And then Bruce and I were asked to provide some suggested countermeasures based on resistance training."

Mitchell is considered the modern-day father of the Air Force's Survival Evasion Resistance Escape, or SERE, program. Thousands of Airmen go through SERE training and are taught how to resist torture if captured by enemy forces. Mitchell, who retired from the Air Force a month before 9/11 after more than two decades of service, said his SERE background is why he was asked to "provide insight" to the CIA "about the kinds of resistance behavior that resistance-based trained detainees were likely to deploy."


He and Jessen wrote a paper about it and submitted it to the agency. "Recognizing and Developing Countermeasures to Al Qaeda Resistance to Interrogation Techniques: A Resistance Training Perspective" is footnoted in the Senate's executive summary. Mitchell then returned to work on his other contract in Philadelphia.

Less than two months later, "I got a phone call and I was asked to return immediately to the agency," Mitchell said. [He would not say who called him.] "They asked me if I would monitor the interrogation for Abu Zubaydah and look at the resistance techniques he would use and come up with a list of interrogation techniques to consider. The word here is consider. At no time was I in any kind of command."

Zubaydah was captured on March 28, 2002 in Faisalabad, Pakistan. At one time, the US government claimed he was the planner of the 9/11 attacks, the number two or number three person in al Qaeda, a "lieutenant" to Osama bin Laden, and a man involved in every major al Qaeda operation dating back to the mid 1990s. Several years ago, the Department of Justice walked back nearly all of those claims. He was never an official member of al Qaeda — meaning he never swore allegiance to bin Laden, one of the requirements to obtain membership — but he did have deep insight into al Qaeda's operational structure as detailed in his diaries; he wrote down the names of everyone he ever encountered at terrorist training camps.


"I was also asked to provide recommendations for non-coercive countermeasures based on SERE training," Mitchell said. "I did not conduct any interrogations during this time. I did not make any recommendations about which measures were employed or confinement conditions. Later, I was asked to perform interrogations and other duties in the CIA's enhanced interrogation program."

He said anyone could have stopped the interrogations of detainees at any time if it "crossed the line."

One example of a resistance technique Zubaydah used involved telling long-winded stories about operatives and suggesting they were still alive when in fact they were dead.

"They would be pushing him for operatives, and he would give them the name of an operative," Mitchell said. "Then he would go on and on about this operative for hours, and after wasting a great deal of time, he would say, 'This guy was killed in '85.'"

Zubaydah's attorney, Joseph Margulies, told VICE News in an interview last month that Mitchell should be stripped of his license to practice psychology and be held accountable.

"What he did was wrong," Margulies said.

* * *

The Senate Intelligence Committee's report said neither Mitchell nor Jessen "had experience as an interrogator, nor did either have specialized knowledge of al Qaeda, a background in terrorism, or any relevant regional, cultural, or linguistic expertise."

Mitchell provided VICE News with voluminous military evaluation records, dating back decades, that show he has an extensive background in special operations, hostage negotiations and interrogation training. The evaluations show that Mitchell has provided classified briefings prior to 9/11 to the CIA, the FBI, and National Security Agency (NSA).


"There are numerous factual errors about my background and experience," Mitchell said. "These errors exist because my non-disclosure agreement would not allow me to defend myself or correct false information put forth by a variety of sources," including former FBI special agent Ali Soufan, who was present with Mitchell at the black site in Thailand and initially lead the interrogation of Zubaydah before Mitchell took over. Soufan has written critically of Mitchell and his methods.

Mitchell said he was never asked to provide the CIA with information about al Qaeda when he was first approached. He was asked only about resistance training techniques used in SERE training. It was the Defense Department's most up-to-date SERE resistance methods in 2002 that became the foundation for the CIA's enhanced interrogation program. The techniques that were used on detainees included painful stress positions, wall slamming and cramped confinement. A spokesperson for the DOD declined to comment.

The CIA, in its response to the Senate report, defended Mitchell and Jessen, saying the Senate's assertion that they had "no relevant experience" is "incorrect." The CIA said Mitchell and Jessen had the "closest proximate expertise available to the CIA at the time the program was authorized."

"We believe their expertise was so unique that we would have been derelict had we not sought them out when it became clear that CIA would be heading into the uncharted territory of the program," the agency's response to the Senate report said.


Mitchell is named (by pseudonym) in the Senate's executive summary 106 times. He is depicted overseeing and participating in the brutal interrogations of al-Nashiri, Zubaydah, and KSM.

The Senate report, Mitchell said, "Presents a misleading and inaccurate caricature of the way EITs were used."

He went on:

Unlike what the Senate report said, the very first thing you do when you encounter [a detainee] in an interrogation session is you make a neutral assessment as to whether he's going to work with you or not. You ask him information that's on your intel requirement list that he can verify. If he cooperates, you never go to EITs. You just don't do it. It would set you back. You move to rapport building. But if he refuses to engage, then you move quickly to the waterboard, and you don't expect to get any information from the person on the first waterboarding. What you're trying to do is induce enough fear and panic in the first session that when you come back for the second session several hours later, he's willing to talk to you because what you do at the end of the first session is say, 'The next time I come back in I'm going to ask you this question, and your answer to that question will determine if we go on to the next thing.' And after about, max, 72 hours of that they're talking the next time you come in.

He explained that the waterboarding of KSM, reported to have taken place 183 times, was actually "183 pours that lasted between 1 and 10 seconds."


"The [Justice Department legal] memo says that in a waterboarding session, you can pour an application of water for 20 to 40 seconds to give that person a chance to breathe, then another 20 to 40 seconds, and you can do that for 20 minutes," Mitchell said, referring to the waterboarding of Abu Zubadyah, which he personally conducted. "It became clear to me early in the first session that this was too large a quantity of water…. During that first session when we started pouring water, we decided we would do two 20-second sessions and one 40-second session, and the rest would be from 1 to 10 seconds. The CIA [Inspector General] sent a lawyer out with a stopwatch and a counter to measure the average amount of time water was poured in a single waterboarding sessions. The average amount of time was 10 seconds."

The Senate report, citing CIA emails, said the first waterboarding applications of Zubaydah left the suspected terrorist "completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth." It also said that the repeated waterboarding applications of Zubaydah, KSM and Al-Nashiri did not produce any valuable intelligence and often resulted in "fabricated information," a charge the CIA disputes in its response to the committee.

Despite repeated questions, Mitchell would not describe any other details of the waterboarding sessions.

'I was told that [President George W. Bush] had authorized my action, I was told that the highest law enforcement office in the land had judged those actions to be legal, I was told that the intelligence committees in Congress had been briefed. And now I'm being denigrated by some of the very people who pushed me to use harsher measures.'


It is still unclear how the release of the Senate report will impact the military commissions for KSM and the other 9/11 suspects identified in the Senate report, which are taking place at Guantanamo. Attorneys for the accused have been prohibited from discussing their treatment during unclassified hearings. But Mitchell's disclosures will likely interest the defense teams of the accused.

"The identities of the people who tortured Mr. Mohammed are still considered by the government to be classified," David Nevin, one of KSM's attorneys, told VICE News in an interview while Nevin was at Guantanamo. "I would like to talk to anyone who witnessed any of the treatment of Mr. Mohammed."

* * *

"I would like the American people to look at this from my perspective," Mitchell said. "At a time when America was under attack, I was asked to take on a task that could potentially save thousands of lives. I was briefed about pending attacks in the wake of 9/11, I was told that [President George W. Bush] had authorized my action, I was told that the highest law enforcement office in the land had judged those actions to be legal, I was told that the intelligence committees in Congress had been briefed. The interrogations I engaged in were monitored in real time by medical personnel and leadership who could have stopped what I was doing at any time. I was never told I was doing anything outside of authorities. I was told for years that my activities had saved lives and prevented attacks. And now I'm being denigrated by some of the very people who pushed me to use harsher measures."


There was enormous pressure from higher-ups to continue using EITs on detainees to obtain intelligence, Mitchell said. And the pressure affected him. He identified himself as one of the interrogators in the Senate report who, according to an August 8, 2002 cable, were "profoundly affected… some to the point of tears and choking up" when told by CIA headquarters to continue waterboarding Zubaydah. Mitchell said he did not believe interrogators needed to use EITs to gain the additional intelligence Zubaydah had.

Mitchell confirmed the accuracy of a 2009 Washington Post report that said he and Jessen were going to resign from the program after they were told to continue waterboarding Zubaydah despite the fact that they said it was no longer necessary to do so.

"The Senate report leads the reader to infer that a lot of the concerns were expressed about me and Bruce, but it is often the case that Dr. Jessen and I were expressing concerns about dialing it back," Mitchell said.

He took some concerns directly to the CIA's watchdog, which launched an investigation in January 2003. A heavily redacted version of the May 7, 2004 Inspector General's report was declassified about five years ago. On the first page, it says an office within the CIA had received information about "agency personnel" using "unauthorized interrogation techniques" against al-Nashiri, the USS Cole bombing suspect.

Mitchell could not say whether he was the one who raised those concerns, because those details are still classified. But three former CIA officials said Mitchell was the contractor who expressed outrage and reported that interrogators used a "stiff brush" on al-Nashiri, made threats to him and his family, blew cigar smoke in his face, and employed unauthorized stress positions.


"For all of the instances, the allegations were disputed or too ambiguous to reach any authoritative determination regarding the facts," the inspector general's report said. "Thus, although these allegations are illustrative of the nature of the concerns held by individuals associated with the [CIA] Program and the need for clear guidance, they did not warrant separate investigations or administrative action."

Mitchell said he wants to prove that he acted within Justice Department legal guidelines during interrogations, and that when there were instances of "abuse," he and Jessen immediately reported it.

"I would like to call for the full release of my OIG deposition," he said. "It's a clear record of the things that I saw that concerned me. In the original OIG report the things I talked about were redacted."

* * *

The executive summary says that Mitchell and Jessen personally reaped an $81 million windfall for their work while under contract to the CIA. But Mitchell disputes the characterization.

"It was not income provided to me," he said. "That was a multi-year commercial contract that was provided to a company that employed many people."

In 2005, the two men formed Mitchell Jessen & Associates, whose principals included former CIA and Defense Department officials, and entered into a contract with the CIA. Mitchell told VICE News that the percentage of the company's profit margin built into the contract was in the single digits, though he was unable to reveal the exact number because it's classified. But "no one took any money for being an officer, and no one took any money for being a board member. Not even the chief financial officer was paid," Mitchell said.

"I was paid by the hour, and only when I worked," he said, with the Senate report stating that he earned as much as $1,800 a day. "I wasn't living hand to mouth, but it wasn't $81 million."

Mitchell said the vast majority of the $81 million was earmarked for "overhead, operating expenses, and salaries for employees." News reports have said the company employed 60 people, but Mitchell would not discuss the number.

The Intelligence Committee's executive summary says that a majority of the personnel who were attached to the CIA's detention and interrogation program were provided through Mitchell Jessen & Associates.

"That commercial contract came about in response to a request for a proposal," Mitchell said. "The company's bid was then evaluated by contracting personnel to determine if the costs were reasonable. The government decided to issue the contract, they conducted multiple audits of the contract, and they annually renewed it until it was canceled for the convenience of the government. When initially asked if I was interested in bidding, I was told it was going to be an open competition. Later they decided to make it a sole-source contract."

VICE News sought a copy of the contract earlier this year through a Freedom of Information Act request filed with the CIA. The agency responded by neither confirming nor denying the contract existed.

Senate torture report finds the CIA was less effective and more brutal than anyone knew. Read more here.

Mitchell's and Jessen's work with the CIA was renewed after Barack Obama was sworn in as president in January 2009. That April, then-CIA Director Leon Panetta ended the contractual arrangement. The timing coincided with the release of Justice Department legal memoranda, commonly referred to as the "torture memos," that revealed the authorization provided to the CIA to use EITs against the CIA's first big catch, Abu Zubaydah.

Since the release of the Senate report, Mitchell said he has received dozens of death threats. After he was unmasked as Grayson Swigert, jihadists called for his and Jessen's beheading.

CIA spokesman Dean Boyd said the agency can't comment on any individuals. "As a general matter," Boyd added, "we are taking appropriate steps to protect current and former CIA staff and contractors."

Additional reporting by Brooke Workneh

Follow Jason Leopold on Twitter: @JasonLeopold