It was a little more than six months after the 9/11 attacks when Dr. James E. Mitchell received a phone call from the chief of department that housed the CIA’s operational psychologists. The request to come to the CIA headquarters in Langley wasn’t seemingly out of place, Dr. Mitchell was already an established consultant with the agency, with years of experience in the Air Force Special Operations unit. But there was an urgency to the request, followed up by a statement “You should be ready to leave the country immediately after the meetings.” Little did he know at the time, Abu Zubaydah, a prominent Al Qaeda operative, was recently captured alive during a raid in Pakistan.
Abu Zubaydah not only studied resistance to interrogation techniques, but also taught it in his Al-Qaeda training camp. Because Mitchell and a colleague had written a report about concerns that terrorists were applying resistance to interrogation techniques, he was invited to provide his input as a CIA operational psychiatrist. After a briefing and impromptu contract agreement, Dr. Mitchell was on his way to a secret CIA black site where Abu Zubaydah, the highest ranking Al-Qaida leader caught up till that point, was being held. Over the course of the broader “War on Terrorism,” Dr. Mitchell would be called up to oversee and interrogate several other high value detainees, including Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the USS Cole attack commander and the Al Qaeda 9/11 planner, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM).
Dr. Mitchell’s account goes at a rather brisk pace, moving from one account to another with only occasional pauses where further elaboration may deem necessary. Operational or military terminology is not used often, and if used, followed up immediately with an explanation. This makes it easier for non-military or non-agency readers to grasp and understand. In fact, he explains psychiatric techniques more than anything else, which most people who worked with prisoners (or children) may have used, but without knowing the proper terminology.
Generally, the pacing is brisk and the author weaves conversations and personal narrations into the story to keep the reader engaged. Even though his accounts span several years, among different detainees and through different sites, I personally didn’t feel lost regarding the context of the situation. He does his best to keep the average reader informed and engaged, and for the most part I think he succeeded. Keep in mind however, that my personal experience as a former U.S. Army HUMINT Collector may have made it easier to comprehend to me.
After I spent thousands of hours with KSM discussing the nuts and bolts of his brand of Islamic jihad, KSM kiddingly told me that I should be on the FBI’s Most Wanted List because I am now a “known associate” of KSM and a “graduate” of his training camp.”
But not to say the entire book is dry and entirely procedural. Dr. Mitchell talks about the individual idiosyncrasies each detainee had, and the little psychological defiance they relished in. Little things like Abu Zubaydah’s attempts to break every chair he sat in, KSM posting office hours on his cell with the pre-requisite “Open/Close” sign, peppers the narrative throughout the book.