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April 23, 2009

Send Lawyers, Waterboards & Money: The Ballad Of James Mitchell

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Marcy has a question about something from retired FBI agent Ali Soufan’s op-ed in the New York Times. Soufan’s whole op-ed is about how a joint FBI/CIA team interrogating Abu Zubaydah from March to June 2002 yielded valuable intelligence. But Jay Bybee’s Office of Legal Counsel memo from August 1, 2002 is predicated on the proposition that the interrogation regime that Soufan and his colleagues employed was unsuccessful, and needed to be enhanced. Marcy wants to know:

So who lied to Bybee about what facts the CIA had in its possession?

Presuming that Soufan’s account is accurate — and when he testifies, as he inevitably will, before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, it’s going to be as powerful as Jim Comey’s May 2007 public indictment of the Bush legal team, so it better be public is all I’m saying — then someone had to communicate to Bybee a misrepresentation of what was going on during the initial, pre-torture interrogation. George Tenet’s memoir is unclear on who did this, and probably deliberately, saying only that after Abu Zubaydah’s late-March 2002 capture, "we opened discussions within the National Security Council as to how to handle him, since holding and interrogating large numbers of al-Qa’ida operatives had never been part of our plan." (That’s page 241 of At The Center Of The Storm.) It’s easy enough to figure that the CIA’s then-top lawyers, Scott Muller and John Rizzo, were the ones communicating directly with Bybee. But someone must have been giving them information about what was happening at the CIA safehouse in Thailand where Abu Zubaydah’s interrogation took place — and suggesting that the interrogation wasn’t going well.

One guess is James Mitchell. Mitchell is a former SERE psychologist whom the Senate Armed Services Committee report says contacted his SERE colleague Bruce Jessen in "December 2001 or January 2002" to "review documents describing al Qaeda resistance training." (It’s unclear why Mitchell, then retired from SERE, decided to get into the game that way. Who let him know about those documents?) They prepared a report about what the storehouse of knowledge within SERE — which trains U.S. troops in how to survive and resist torture at the hands of enemy nations — could mean for U.S. interrogations of al-Qaeda. That report, circulated throughout the military — including to the Defense Intelligence Agency — became the basis for seminars that SERE and its overseeing agency at Joint Forces Command held for U.S. interrogators that spring. By April, Jessen prepared an "Exploitation Draft Plan" for "select al Qaeda detainees." That would be days or weeks after the capture of Abu Zubaydah.

Somehow, a SERE guy was part of the Abu Zubaydah interrogation as soon as CIA officials deployed to interrogate the detainee. It is unclear how exactly the CIA knew to contact SERE experts for assistance in their interrogations of Abu Zubaydah. The August 1, 2002 OLC memo identifies as a "Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape (”SERE”) training psychologist who has been involved with the interrogations since they began." I initially thought that was Jessen, but public accounts (including those cited in the Senate report) suggest it’s Mitchell. And Mitchell was known to say things like this, as quoted on page 156 of Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side:

[O]thers present [at the interrogation] said he seemed to think he had all the answeres about how to deal with Zubayda. Mitchell announced that the suspect had to be treated "like a dog in a cage," informed sources said. "He said it was like an experiment, when you apply electric shocks to a caged dog, after a while, he’s so diminished, he can’t resist."

This horrified the FBI agents on scene, Mayer reports. ("Science is science," Mitchell retorted. Spoken like Sean Hannity!) They were eventually ordered to leave the interrogation, which became brutal. According to Soufan, some of the CIA people were also uncomfortable with that brutality — but they didn’t have the luxury of leaving. So it’s conspicuous when Soufan writes today:

My C.I.A. colleagues who balked at the techniques, on the other hand, were instructed to continue. (It’s worth noting that when reading between the lines of the newly released memos, it seems clear that it was contractors, not C.I.A. officers, who requested the use of these techniques.)

That reads a lot like Soufan is fingering Mitchell as a driving force behind the turn toward brutality. It would make sense, then, that he would be communicating back through whatever channel to CIA superiors that the interrogation’s iterative, rapport-building approach wasn’t working well enough — or leaning on the official point of communication to include his own point of view in the account. This is pure speculation, though. It’ll take an investigation, currently led by the Senate intelligence community, to truly get at the truth.

But is it too cynical to suggest that Mitchell also had an interest in saying that Soufan and the FBI’s (and apparently, in part, CIA’s) non-brutal techniques failed? From page 24 of the Senate Armed Services Committee report:

Subsequent from his retirement from DoD [the Department of Defense], Dr. Jessen joined Dr. Mitchell and other former JPRA [Joint Personnel Recovery Agency, which oversees SERE] officials to form a company called Mitchell Jessen & Associates. Mitchell Jessen & Associates is co-owned by seven individuals, six of whom either worked for JPRA or one of the service SERE schools as employees and/or contractors. As of July 2007, the company had between 55 and 60 employees, several of whom were former JPRA employees.

Science may be science, but money is money.

Crossposted to The Streak.

Update: My mistake. Scott Muller wasn’t CIA general counsel during the spring 2002 Abu Zubaydah debate. I regret the error.


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