When CIA officials learned about a possible jihadi attack against the United States, they turned to a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel now living in Pasco County to help create new ways of interrogating top al-Qaida captives.
James Mitchell, 65, is a psychologist who had helped train military personnel to deal with intense interrogations by the enemy. Then he tried to persuade the Navy to stop using a portion of his program — the process of pouring water over the breathing passages, known as waterboarding — because it shook the confidence of trainees, actually eroding their ability to keep secrets.
But after describing the techniques to leaders at the CIA, Mitchell said he was asked to turn them on top jihadi captives, instead. One of them was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Approved by the George W. Bush administration, the techniques were banned under President Barack Obama and would later give rise to a five-year, $40 million congressional investigation that equated them to torture. Mitchell, who grew up in the Tampa area, was vilified and, with business partner Bruce Jessen, named in a lawsuit over the death of a detainee.
In November, Mitchell published his own account of these events, titled Enhanced Interrogation: Inside the Minds and Motives of Islamic Terrorists Trying to Destroy America.
This month, in a wide-ranging two-hour interview, Mitchell talked to the Tampa Bay Times about the interrogation program, his response to critics, and advice for President-elect Donald Trump — his choice for president. Here are excerpts.
What was your initial response when the CIA asked you to use waterboarding on captured al-Qaida leader Abu Zubayda in the summer of 2002?
I didn't want to do it.
It was a tremendous responsibility. Imagine a situation where you are the person trying to stop the next attack. It is one thing to participate, but quite another to be the person actually in the arena.
Why did you ultimately decide to?
After doing analysis, there was nothing in my moral compass that requires that I put the temporary discomfort of a terrorist who could stop it anytime he wanted to by answering the questions ahead of the rights of Americans to go about their business without being blown up and killed.
What was it like to waterboard Zubayda?
It sucks. It was one of those things that was emotionally challenging to do. I didn't enjoy it. He didn't enjoy it, obviously. … So what was it like to do it? It was morally difficult. Every day, Bruce and I would say to ourselves, "Have we gotten to the point where we don't need to be doing this to get information from them?" Because we are still interested in stopping the attacks … still in the works. Every time we said we don't need to be doing these harsh interrogations anymore, (the CIA) would (say) … that there is going to be another attack and the blood of dead Americans will be on your hands.
You were allowed to pour water for as long as 40 seconds. But how long did each waterboarding instance usually last?
We discovered right away that we needed between three and 10 seconds on average. We wanted him to be able to breath. We were concerned it might harm him if we did it the way they wanted us to. They sent a lawyer to look at the tapes and on average, the amount of time of each pour was about eight seconds. A bunch were shorter and some were longer. We would do one 40-second pour toward the end and two 20-second pours.
You spent hours with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, also known as KSM. What was he like?
Evil isn't always ugly. Sometimes evil is charming and KSM is the smartest person I have ever encountered in my life and in my career, I have encountered some very smart people. He is like a savant for doing attacks. And he is Sufi, so he has that mischievous Sufi air about his religion. If you treated him like a college professor, he was willing to talk to you. … Some things he was willing to take to his grave, like the location of bin Laden. He didn't know his exact location, but he knew how to find him. He would have taken that to his grave. Fortunately, he didn't have to. In lying to us, he signaled how we could find him.
Trump was quoted as saying his choice for defense secretary — retired Marine Gen. James Mattis — is opposed to torture. What's your message to Mattis?
I know he is a great guy. I know he is an incredible warrior. I know he's much smarter than I am with a lot more experience, but I would ask him, "What would you do sir, in a situation where you were captured by al-Qaida or ISIS? Would you give up information that would get Americans killed for a Miller Lite and a pack of Winstons because of something that was in the Army Field Manual (which prohibits harsh techniques)?" No.
What's your advice to Trump about enhanced interrogation techniques?
I think use somewhere between waterboarding and worse, and what is in the Army Field Manual. There needs to be some legal form of coercion — legal, legal — that can be used against that handful of people that really have the information to stop the next catastrophic attack.
What drives those seeking to destroy America?
Islamists are people who believe Sharia law needs to be imposed on the entire world. There are several different kinds of Islamists. There are those Islamists who think they can impose it by outbreeding you, by kind of cloaking themselves in our civil liberties and voting and slowly ratcheting up Sharia law inside the United States. Then there are others that believe the way to do it is through violence. My beef is with the people who want to do it through violence.
KSM beheaded Wall Street Journal reporter Danny Pearl in 2002. What did he say about that?
He described cutting Daniel Pearl's head off and dismembering him and then burying him in a hole that's not much bigger than a post hole. … The thing that made it creepy is that it was one of the ways these Islamists show they love their God and how powerful their God is by killing people who are helpless to stop it. . . . Well, that's the way that KSM was talking about killing Daniel Pearl. … And he would call him Daniel like they were intimate. Not like they were lovers, but like they shared an intimate moment.
What do you say to your critics?
There really are monsters out there. Not a lot of them, but there are a few of them, and you can't handle protecting yourself from those folks the same way you would handle protecting yourself from a common criminal. I think the American people have to have a debate, really, about how they want to protect themselves. The reason there has not been another 9/11 is because Bush didn't treat it like a law enforcement matter. If he had, there would be big smoking holes in Los Angeles and Chicago and Seattle, probably. … Barack Obama says ISIS and al-Qaida do not represent an existential threat to the United States. What that means is you can't kill enough Americans to bring down the government. But that's not the purpose of government. We're not supposed to stack Americans up like cord wood in front of the White House. The government is supposed to protect Americans.
Contact Howard Altman at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.