November 30, 2016

As the lawsuit against him moves forward, an architect of America’s torture program releases a book defending his role


James Mitchell is being sued by survivors of a CIA black site. In his book, he defends his role creating and implementing the CIA's torture program.

James Mitchell is being sued by survivors of a CIA black site. In his book, he defends his role creating and implementing the CIA’s torture program.

Back in May, we reported on a book by James Mitchell, a psychologist and former CIA contractor who has been named in a lawsuit brought by two former CIA black-site detainees and the family of a third prisoner who died while in CIA custody. At the time, we wrote that “the psychologist claiming in court that he didn’t create the CIA torture program has written a book claiming he created the CIA torture program.”

Mitchell’s book, Enhanced Interrogation: Inside the Minds and Motives of the Islamic Terrorists Trying To Destroy America, was originally scheduled to publish six months ago, and has finally been released, on November 29. In it, Mitchell argues that his actions were legal, justified, and moral. Sheri Fink and James Risen at the New York Times got an early copy of the book and outlined part of Mitchell’s defense.

In the book, Dr. Mitchell alleges that harsh interrogation techniques he devised and carried out, based on those he used as an Air Force trainer in survival schools to prepare airmen if they became prisoners of war, protected the detainees from even worse abuse by the C.I.A.

Dr. Mitchell wrote that he and Dr. Jessen sequestered prisoners in closed boxes, forced them to hold painful positions for hours and prevented them from sleeping for days. He also takes credit for suggesting and implementing waterboarding — covering a detainee’s face with a cloth and pouring water over it to simulate the sensation of drowning — among other now-banned techniques. “Although they were unpleasant, their use protected detainees from being subjected to unproven and perhaps harsher techniques made up on the fly that could have been much worse,” he wrote. C.I.A. officers, he added, “had already decided to get rough.”

Jessica Schulberg at the Huffington Post runs down some of the major takeaways from the book. Among them, “Mitchell tried to get the Navy to stop using waterboarding in SERE training because it was too brutal.” He’s haunted by some of the things he did, but he regrets nothing. Also, “Mitchell believes the media and the Democrats are out to get him.”

Although other lawsuits have been filed against Mitchell, this is the first not to be thrown out on procedural grounds. But it’s not a done deal yet, largely because of the incoming administration, which will serve under a president who has publicly proclaimed his fondness for many of these very techniques. From the NYT:

The case has proceeded in large part because the psychologists’ role in the program has already been documented, particularly in the declassified executive summary of a Senate Intelligence Committee investigation of the interrogation program released in 2014. While the Justice Department has fought to restrict the scope of sensitive information that it has been asked to produce in the case, it has thus far not asserted the state secrets privilege, a broad power to protect national security that could effectively shut down the suit. That could change, analysts say, under the Justice Department in the Trump administration. Representatives for Mr. Trump did not reply to requests for comment on the case, scheduled for trial in June 2017.

Speaking to the New York Times, Steven Watt, a lawyer with the ACLU, argues that with so much information already publicly available, “any attempt to argue that torture is a state secret would be a transparent attempt to evade accountability.” He also touched on what the lawsuit has already accomplished. “‘This case shows that there are consequences for torturing people,’ Mr. Watt of the A.C.L.U. said, adding that it ‘should serve as a warning to anyone thinking about bringing back torture.’”

For his part, Mitchell writes, “I have a hard time imagining responsible individuals in the intelligence community queuing up to employ EITs after seeing how those of us who did so after 9/11 were treated.”

Chalk one up for the good guys, then, at least for the time being.



Julia Fleischaker is a former director of marketing and publicity at Melville House.