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.
It was surreal. It was less than three weeks since some of their colleagues essentially were holding me prisoner at a black site and others were calling me a bleeding-heart pussy who cared more for the terrorists than I did for protecting America. Now they were acting as if none of it ever happened, as if that was how business was normally conducted.”
Dr. Mitchell also highlights the difficulties of working as a contractor within the CIA. Even though he was essentially responsible for crafting a large part of the CIA’s Enhanced Interrogation Technique (EIT) program, he was still not considered part of the agency. He was viewed as an outsider at times, and the author wrote frequently about the desire to wash his hands of the matter and go back to civilian life during particularly tough indifferences.
Not every CIA agent or manager butted heads with the author of course, but a few were specifically highlighted at times. Unless these individuals were publicly known, Mitchell assigns other names, descriptions, or pseudonyms. Yet despite these issues, Mitchell continued to provide his services until President Obama officially halted the program shortly after taking office in 2009.
Then KSM wagged his finger professorially at us and warned, “Soon they will turn on you.” He prophetically predicted that the press and some members of my own government would turn on me and Bruce and others like us who took aggressive action to prevent the next 9/11 attack and save American lives.”
Unlike most other written accounts about post 9/11 war efforts, Dr. Mitchell writes in a manner that seeks to dissuade a litany of different pre-conceived notions surrounding the CIA’s EITs and the program in general. On one hand, Mitchell goes to great lengths to describe the limitations he and the CIA continually imposed to curtail individual acts of abuse and set right and left limits. On the other hand, Mitchell habitually counters charges that the CIA enhanced interrogations was wholly unnecessary and completely out of control. Part of this is just due to the very nature of operating clandestinely with the media and popular culture filling in the knowledge gaps with their own version of events. Despite the smaller conflicts Dr. Mitchell faced within the CIA, the broader conflict with Congress and the public media would be even bigger. This culminated with specific accusations laid out by Senator Dianne Feinstein’s (D) report on the CIA’s Rendition, Detention, and Interrogation program that was released in December of 2014. In a sharp rebuttal to the charges laid out in report, Dr. Mitchell explains enhanced interrogation techniques were needed, particularly at a time when future attacks were a very real prospect. The gloves, as they put it, were off.
He also explains in detail what was used, in what manner, and for how long. This is particularly true for the (controversial) application of water boarding. Among other techniques, he explains was only used on stubbornly defiant individuals who was holding on to valuable information. Dr. Mitchell also says the legalities and limits to enhanced interrogations was established early on.
He admits the program wasn’t without its faults, and individuals may have abused these guidelines at various points. But excessive abusive conduct was not to be tolerated by him or his immediate colleagues, which he makes clear numerous times. In a way, it reminds me of the book “Civilian Warriors” written by Eric Prince, the former Navy SEAL and founder of Blackwater. Both accounts were written after perceptions were already made in the court of public opinion, and both seek to dissuade accusations by government officials concerning various charges with claims of illegal and unethical malfeasance.
These authors give no qualms about their role in engaging America’s enemies in a clandestine war, and seek to reveal the realities of the situation during that time without the veneer of 20/20 hindsight. Although there have been other books on interrogations during the “War on Terror,” few of them are written with the author’s name and credibility already on the line.
Senator Feinstein’s report originally didn’t mention names, but not long after it was released, Mitchell was contacted by various reporters asking for a response. He was convinced that his (and other) identities were leaked by staffers in Feinstein’s office, out of some perceived moral outrage concerning their conduct. This unfortunately also drew the attention of radical Islamic terrorists who have on occasion threatened his life throughout the years. Given the recent controversy surrounding government officials leaking classified information, it is often too easy to forget the individuals who are affected personally by this. As evidence of this, the last three chapters of the book discuss the fallout and substantial investigations that plagued the author and other individuals involved with the CIA program.
KSM explained that if the United States had treated 9/11 like a law enforcement matter, he would have had time to launch a second wave of attacks.”
Whether you agree with the U.S. conduct performed during the post-9/11 conflict against radical Islamic terrorism, or believe the entire endeavor is a mistake from day one, it behooves you to understand everything in context. You can view this as a “he said, she said” scenario, where critics of enhanced interrogation may bristle at the accounts and personal views laid out by Dr. Mitchell in the book. But there was no denying he was there, and even as a contractor, had personal insight and experience with the CIA EIT program few would ever have. He helped craft it, enact it, and oversaw large aspects of it against some of the most hardened and wily Al Qaeda commanders ever caught. He pushes back against the narrative that the CIA interrogation methods were illegal, largely out of control, and always unethical, in this harrowing account that takes the readers from Langley, Virginia to undisclosed sites in Pakistan. Whether or not he makes a convincing case is up to the individual reader.
Finally, it should be clarified that the author largely talks about the CIA interrogation efforts and techniques. He does not talk much about the U.S. military’s interrogation program, unless pertinent to the account on hand. Just to reiterate, the CIA and the military are under different standards and constraints regarding interrogation techniques. The CIA had more latitude in employing EIT and other techniques, while the U.S. military, particularly the Army, was restricted by various SOPs and guidelines laid out in FM 2-22.3, Human Intelligence Operations. Also keep in mind that the quality of information and detainees will be different. The CIA will largely be interested in talking to high level individuals; the U.S. military will get anyone and everyone else.
Enhanced Interrogation: Inside the Minds and Motives of the Islamic Terrorists Trying To Destroy America Dr. Mitchell, James E. with Bill Harlow, The Crown Publishing Group
Note: Book was read on the Amazon Kindle.