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The Destroyed CIA Torture Tapes & Psychologists

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Is the CIA covering up the role of psychologists in torture at secret CIA prisons? Last week CIA Director Michael Hayden defended the Agency’s decision to destroy two videotapes of interrogations saying they posed a “serious security risk.” He said that if they were to become public they would have exposed C.I.A. officials and their families to "retaliation from Al Qaeda and its sympathizers.”

Two individuals involved in the interrogation of Al Qaida operative Abu Zubaydah have been identified by name – both are psychologists.

Earlier this year Vanity Fair’s Katherine Eban reported on Democracy Now! that CIA-contracted psychologist James Elmer Mitchell and Dr. R. Scott Shumate, the chief psychologist for the CIA’s counterterrorism center were at Zubaydah’s interrogation. (Shumate was later a member of the American Psychological Association’s PENS Task Force on “Psychological Ethics and National Security.)

Katherine Eban:

"The CIA interrogation team arrived with James Mitchell it tow and said, ’Now, everything is going to change. We’re going to get him to say everything he knows, and we’re going to use these coercive techniques. And, according to my sources, there was even a coffin present at the interrogation they were going to use to bury Zubaydah alive."

Eban also discussed the central role of two CIA-contracted psychologists, James Elmer Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, in designing torture tactics for use on detainees held in secret CIA prisons around the world. Both worked in a classified military training program known as sere—for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape—which trains soldiers to endure captivity in enemy hands. Mitchell and Jessen reverse-engineered the tactics inflicted on sere trainees for use on detainees, including Abu Zubaydah, in the global war on terror. The C.I.A. put them in charge of training interrogators in the brutal techniques, including “waterboarding,” at its network of “black sites.”

Excerpts from our July 30, 2007 interview:

KATHERINE EBAN: According to my reporting, James Mitchell arrived at the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah. He was one of America’s first high-value detainees. He was captured in March of 2002 in a firefight in Pakistan. He wound up in a safe house in Thailand. He was rushed to a hospital in order to save his life from infected wounds. The FBI had agents present at the scene, and because the CIA’s interrogation team had not yet arrived, they began to interrogate Zubaydah.

And what they used was classic rapport-building techniques that almost every FBI agent is trained in, which is to find common ground with the person you’re interrogating, to treat them with humanity. And, lo and behold, Zubaydah responded and talked, and not only talked, but gave them the name of the person who had been the entire master planner of 9/11: K.S.M. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, referred to as Mukhtar. He identified him. He identified Jose Padilla. In other words, there was every indicator that rapport-building techniques were completely effective.

However, after those disclosures, the CIA interrogation team arrived with James Mitchell it tow and said, “Now, everything is going to change. We’re going to get him to say everything he knows, and we’re going to use these coercive techniques.” And, according to my sources, there was even a coffin present at the interrogation they were going to use to bury Zubaydah alive.

AMY GOODMAN: Hadn’t George Tenet gotten involved between the two interrogations, between the FBI and the later CIA?

KATHERINE EBAN: Well, like most bad ideas in the war on terror, much of it is driven by a turf battle. So, reportedly Tenet was at Langley in a meeting. He said, “I want to congratulate my agents on the ground for the disclosures.” And then he learned his agents were not on the ground interrogating him. He got furious. He said, “Get that interrogation team there as quickly as possible. Make sure you keep Zubaydah alive.” And so, there was a clear turf battle.

Now, the FBI agents who were present, once the CIA interrogation team introduced these harsh tactics—basically there was the equivalent of a firefight within the safe house over what kind of tactics were going to be used. And the FBI ultimately deemed that its agents could not be present while coercive tactics were being used. You know, the FBI is a law enforcement agent. Their goal and their training is to bring people to trial using interrogation methods that are permissible at a trial, which don’t include any of these coercive techniques. Of course, you couldn’t bring anybody to trial saying that you had extracted a confession using these methods. And so, the result of the fight within the safe house between the FBI and the CIA was to give the CIA, which had much less experience with interrogations, control. And that’s how America’s interrogation policies unfolded....

Mitchell showed up at the safe house, along with the chief psychologist for the counterterrorism center, Dr. R. Scott Shumate, who, I should mention, was a member of the APA’s task force on interrogation policy. Mitchell said that “We’re going to use these harsh interrogation tactics in order to extract all the possible information from Zubaydah.” And among those, as I mentioned, was a coffin in which they were planning to bury him alive.

Curiously, when this fight broke out at the safe house over the use of these policies, Shumate protested the tactics and subsequently told associates, as we had learned, that he thought it was a mistake for the CIA to hire contractors.

Nonetheless, at the time, Mitchell said that the interrogators were going to be Zubaydah’s god and that they would basically bestow privileges or take them away, depending on his level of cooperation. And basically his philosophy, as it was described to me by someone familiar with his use of tactics, is to completely break down a detainee through white noise, through complete separation of his personality, to completely unmoor him and make him completely dependent on his interrogators. And it was through that psychic breakdown he had planned to extract as much intelligence as possible.

AMY GOODMAN: You write the CIA put them in charge of training interrogators in the brutal techniques, including waterboarding, at its network of black sites. In a statement, Mitchell and Jessen said, “We are proud of the work we have done for our country.” Where are Jessen and Mitchell today?

KATHERINE EBAN: My understanding is they are—they have their company, Mitchell, Jessen & Associates. It actually—business appears to be blooming. They have 120 employees out of their office in Spokane. They have classified contracts with the CIA in their office. They even have what’s called a SCIF, which is a secure compartmented information facility, as a way to handle classified materials, classified training, classified documents.

Listen/Watch/Download the full Democracy Now! interview with Katherine Eban here.

Katherine Eban: 'Rorschach and Awe' (VanityFair.com)


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