In April 2002, as the terrorism suspect known as Abu Zubaida lay in a Bangkok hospital bed, top U.S. counterterrorism officials gathered at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., for a series of meetings on an urgent problem: how to get him to talk.
Put him in a cell filled with cadavers, was one suggestion, according to a former U.S. official with knowledge of the brainstorming sessions. Surround him with naked women, was another. Jolt him with electric shocks to the teeth, was a third.
One man’s certitude lanced through the debate, according to a participant in one of the meetings. James E. Mitchell, a retired clinical psychologist for the Air Force, had studied al-Qaida resistance techniques.
“The thing that will make him talk,” the participant recalled Mitchell saying, “is fear.”
Now, as the Senate intelligence committee examines the CIA’s interrogation program, investigators are focusing in part on Mitchell and John Bruce Jessen, former CIA contractors and Spokane-based psychologists who helped design and oversee Abu Zubaida’s interrogation. These men have been portrayed as eager proponents of coercion, but the former U.S. official, corroborated in part by Justice Department documents, said they also rejected orders from Langley to prolong the most severe pressure on the detainee. The former official’s account, alongside the recollections of those familiar with events at the CIA’s secret prison in Thailand, yields a more nuanced understanding of their role than has previously been available.
Interviews with nearly two dozen current and former U.S. officials also provide new evidence that the imposition of harsh techniques provoked dissension among the officials charged with questioning Abu Zubaida, from the time of his capture through the period when the most grueling torments were applied.
In August 2002, as the first anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks approached, officials at CIA headquarters became increasingly concerned that they were not learning enough from their detainee in Thailand. When the interrogators concluded that Abu Zubaida had no more to tell, Langley scolded them: “You’ve lost your spine.” If Mitchell and his team eased up and then al-Qaida attacked the United States again, agency managers warned, “it would be on the team’s back,” recalled the former U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified information.
The officials who authorized or participated in harsh interrogations continue to dispute how effective such methods were and whether important information could have been obtained from Abu Zubaida and others without them. In March, the Washington Post reported that former senior government officials said that not a single significant plot was foiled as a result of Abu Zubaida’s coerced confessions.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, in a 2007 report made public this year, said the application of harsh interrogation methods “either singly or in combination, constituted torture.”
George Little, a CIA spokesman, said harsh interrogation was always “a small fraction of the agency’s counterterrorism mission.” Now, he added, “the CIA is focused not on the past, but on analyzing current terrorist threats and thwarting terrorist plots.”
Mitchell, 58, who remained a CIA contractor until this spring, declined to be interviewed. In conversations with close colleagues in recent months, he has rejected the popular portrayal of his role, maintaining that he steered the agency away from far more brutal methods toward practices that would not cause permanent harm to detainees.
Jessen, 60, declined to comment. The firm’s Spokane office has closed.
On Saturday, Mitchell issued a brief statement: “It may be easy for people who were not there and didn’t feel the pressure of the threats to say how much better they could have done it. But they weren’t there. We were and we did the best that we could.”
The ‘Manchester Manual’
A silver-maned, voluble man, Mitchell had retired from the Air Force before the Sept. 11 attacks and won several government contracts, including one from the CIA to study ways to assess people who volunteered information to the agency. While still in the military training program known as SERE – for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape and based primarily at Fairchild Air Force Base – he and his colleagues called themselves “Masters of the Mind (Expletive),” according to two military officials who worked in the program.
In December 2001, the CIA asked Mitchell to analyze the “Manchester Manual,” a document seized in a raid in Britain that described al-Qaida resistance techniques. Mitchell asked Jessen, a senior SERE psychologist, to help prepare the assessment, according to Senate investigators.
The Mitchell-Jessen memo, which was distributed widely within the CIA, discussed the efficacy of techniques such as sleep deprivation and noise bombardment but did not broach waterboarding.
“It is not realistic to think someone who is hardened will talk unless they fear that something bad is going to happen to them,” said the former U.S. official, describing Mitchell and Jessen’s thinking. “They didn’t think rapport-building techniques would work. But they also didn’t (advocate) using waterboarding right away.”
Mitchell told acquaintances that he also drew important lessons from the theory of “learned helplessness,” a term psychologists use to describe people or animals reduced to a state of complete helplessness by some form of coercion or pain, such as electric shock. Mitchell insisted, however, that coercive interrogation should not reduce a prisoner to despair. Instead, he argued, “you want them to have the view that something they could say would hold the key to getting them out of the situation they were in,” according to the former official.
“If you convince (a terrorism suspect) he’s helpless, he’s no good to you,” the former official said.
A breakthrough in Bangkok
In early April 2002, some officials at the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center were not convinced that the man in U.S. custody was indeed Zayn al-Abidin Muhammed Hussein, Abu Zubaida’s given name. The Saudi-born Palestinian, then 29, had been sought by the FBI on suspicion of a role in a foiled 1999 plan to attack Los Angeles International Airport and tourist destinations in Jordan.
The detainee had been captured in Pakistan in late March 2002 after a firefight that left him wounded in the thigh, groin and stomach. After being treated in Pakistan, he was flown to Thailand for interrogation.
The CIA dispatched FBI agents Ali Soufan and Steve Gaudin for an initial look. The two men arrived a few hours before the wounded man was transferred to a hastily assembled CIA interrogation facility near one of Bangkok’s airports.
Details of their experience and that of the CIA officials who followed them to Thailand with Mitchell were gleaned from public testimony, official documents and interviews with current and former intelligence and law-enforcement officials with access to confidential files. Through the FBI, Gaudin declined to comment for this article, and Soufan referred reporters to his congressional testimony and other public statements.
Soufan, a Lebanese American, later described the FBI’s method as “informed interrogation.” It was based on “leveraging our knowledge of the detainee’s culture and mind-set, together with using information we already know about him,” he told a Senate panel in May.
On the agents’ first night in Thailand, Abu Zubaida went into septic shock because of his wounds and was rushed to a local hospital. Gaudin and Soufan dabbed his lips with ice, told him to ask God for strength and cleaned him up after he soiled himself, according to official documents and interviews.
At his bedside, Gaudin asked Soufan to show Abu Zubaida a photograph of Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, an Egyptian suspect in the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998. The two agents had photos of terrorism suspects on a handheld computer, and Gaudin accidentally displayed the wrong photo.
Abu Zubaida said: “This is Mukhtar. This is the mastermind of 9/11.”
The agents did not know that Mukhtar, a name that had surfaced in some raw intelligence and an Osama bin Laden video, was a nickname for Khalid Sheik Mohammed. Nor did they know that Mohammed was an al-Qaida member.
Abu Zubaida had given the agents the first positive link to the man who would later be charged as the chief planner of the Sept. 11 attacks.
‘Creating the atmosphere’
With the FBI’s breakthrough, the CIA recognized that the captured man was indeed Abu Zubaida and began assembling a team to send to Thailand. Agency officials had no firm notion of what a post-Sept. 11 interrogation of a terrorism suspect should look like.
“It was not a job we sought out,” said one former senior intelligence official involved in early decisions on interrogation. “The generals didn’t want to do it. The FBI said no. It fell to the agency because we had the (legal) authorities and could operate overseas.”
In Mitchell, the CIA found an authoritative professional who had answers, despite an absence of practical experience in interrogating terrorism suspects or data showing that harsh tactics work.
“Here was a guy with a title and a shingle,” recalled the participant in the Langley meeting, “and he was saying things that others in the room already believed to be true.”
Mitchell boarded a CIA plane for Bangkok with R. Scott Shumate, a CIA psychologist; two agency officers who worked undercover; and a small team of analysts and support staff, including security personnel to control Abu Zubaida.
Among those on the plane was an agency expert on interrogation and debriefing, an officer who was part of a training program intended to help the agency detect double agents and assess recruits for foreign espionage. The trainers taught strategies for extracting sensitive information but prohibited coercive tactics.
When Mitchell and the CIA team arrived in Thailand, Abu Zubaida was still in the hospital. The two FBI agents, Soufan and Gaudin, met the CIA officers at a nearby hotel for a debriefing.
Although senior CIA officials in Bangkok were nominally in charge, they deferred to Mitchell, according to several sources familiar with events at the prison.
“There was a big sense of arrogance about him,” one source said.
After Abu Zubaida was discharged, the FBI was shut out of the interrogations as Mitchell began establishing the conditions for Abu Zubaida’s interrogation – “creating the atmosphere,” as he put it to colleagues.
In the initial stages, Abu Zubaida was stripped of his clothes while CIA officers took turns at low-intensity questioning. Later, Mitchell added sleep deprivation and a constant bombardment of loud music, including tracks by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. After each escalation, he would dispatch an interrogator into Abu Zubaida’s cell to issue a single demand: “Tell me what I want to know.”
Mitchell sometimes spoke directly to the prisoner, but unlike the CIA officers, he wore a mask, according to two sources familiar with the events in Thailand.
He repeatedly sought authorization from the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center for his actions.
“The program was fully put together, vetted and run by the counterterrorism folks at the agency,” the former U.S. official said. “CIA headquarters was involved directly in every detail of interrogation. Permission had to be obtained before every technique was used, and the dialogue was very heavy. There were cables and also an IM system. All Mitchell’s communications were with the Counterterrorist Center.”
In Bangkok, word circulated among those at the secret site that the tactics had been approved “downtown” – agency jargon for the White House.
Soufan testified to Congress in May that Abu Zubaida went silent once Mitchell took charge. Within days of the CIA team’s arrival, the cables between Bangkok and Langley became devoid of new revelations. Agency officials decided to allow the FBI back into the interrogations, but on the condition that forced nudity and sleep deprivation remained in place.
The CIA team lowered the temperature in Abu Zubaida’s cell until the detainee turned blue. The FBI turned it back up, setting off a clash over tactics.
Under FBI questioning, Abu Zubaida identified an operative he knew as Abdullah al-Mujahir, the alias, he said, of an American citizen with a Latino name. An investigation involving multiple agencies identified the suspect as Jose Padilla, the al-Qaida operative later convicted of providing material support for terrorism.
“In two different bits, after sleep deprivation, is when Abu Zubaida gave clues about who Padilla might be,” the former U.S. official said. “When that was put together with other CIA sources, they were able to identify who he was. … The cables will not show that the FBI just asked friendly questions and got information about Padilla.”
As more miseries were heaped on Abu Zubaida, some members of the CIA team joined the FBI agents in pushing back. Among them was Shumate, the CIA psychologist, who voiced regret that he had played a role in recommending Mitchell to the agency, former associates said. Shumate did not return phone calls and e-mails seeking comment.
Soufan later told Justice Department investigators examining the FBI’s role in detainee interrogations that he viewed Mitchell’s early methods as “borderline torture.”
In addition, one of the CIA team members told others in the group that he believed Abu Zubaida was being honest when he claimed to know nothing about significant al-Qaida plots, according to two officials with access to classified reports.
Although Abu Zubaida was not a member of al-Qaida and had limited relations with bin Laden, he was a font of information on the membership of the terrorist group because of his long-standing ties with Mohammed and North African jihadists, according to former intelligence and law-enforcement officials who have read his files. Abu Zubaida’s attorneys maintain that he had no connection with al-Qaida.
“You’ve got it all wrong,” the detainee told one interrogator in May 2002, according to a former intelligence official with access to sensitive records. Abu Zubaida said that al-Qaida had been surprised at the devastating efficacy of the Sept. 11 attacks and that any plans for future attacks were mere aspirations.
Abu Zubaida was lying but eventually would disclose everything, Mitchell asserted to his colleagues, citing his backers at the Counterterrorist Center. He repeated that his methods had been approved “at the highest levels,” one of the interrogators later told the Justice Department investigators.
At the secret prison, dissent over Mitchell’s methods peaked. First Shumate left, followed by Soufan. At the site, Shumate had expressed concerns about sleep deprivation, and back in Langley he complained again about Mitchell’s tactics, according to the former U.S. official and another source familiar with events in Thailand.
Then one of the CIA debriefers left. In early June, Gaudin flew to Washington for a meeting on what was happening in Thailand, and the FBI did not allow him to return.
Jessen, newly retired from the military, arrived in Thailand that month. Mitchell and his partner continued to ratchet up the pressure on Abu Zubaida, although Bush administration lawyers had not yet authorized the CIA’s harshest interrogation measures. That came verbally in late July and then in writing on Aug. 1, paving the way to new torments.
Interrogators wrapped a towel around Abu Zubaida’s neck and slammed him into a plywood wall mounted in his cell. He was slapped in the face. He was placed in a coffin-like wooden box in which he was forced to crouch, with no light and a restricted air supply, he later told delegates from the Red Cross.
Finally, he was waterboarded.
Abu Zubaida told the Red Cross that a black cloth was placed over his face and that interrogators used a plastic bottle to pour water on the fabric, creating the sensation that he was drowning.
The former U.S. official said that waterboarding forced Abu Zubaida to reveal information that led to the Sept. 11, 2002, capture of Ramzi Binalshibh, the key liaison between the Hamburg cell led by Sept. 11 hijacker Mohammed Atta and al-Qaida’s leadership in Afghanistan.
But others contend that Binalshibh’s arrest was the result of several pieces of intelligence, including the successful interrogation by the FBI of a suspect held at Bagram air base in Afghanistan who had been in contact via satellite phone with Binalshibh, as well as information gleaned from an interview Binalshibh gave to the television network Al-Jazeera.
Abu Zubaida was waterboarded 83 times over four or five days, and Mitchell and Jessen concluded that the prisoner was broken, the former U.S. official said. “They became convinced that he was cooperating. There was unanimity within the team.”
One more time
CIA officials at the Counterterrorist Center were not convinced.
“Headquarters was sending daily harangues, cables, e-mails insisting that waterboarding continue for 30 days because another attack was believed to be imminent,” the former official said. “Headquarters said it would be on the team’s back if an attack happened. They said to the interrogation team, ‘You’ve lost your spine.’ ”
Mitchell and Jessen now found themselves in the same position as Soufan, Shumate and others.
“It was hard on them, too,” the former U.S. official said. “They are psychologists. They didn’t enjoy this at all.”
The two men threatened to quit if the waterboarding continued and insisted that officials from Langley come to Thailand to watch the procedure, the former official said.
After a CIA delegation arrived, Abu Zubaida was strapped down one more time. As water poured over his cloth-covered mouth, he gasped for breath. “They all watched, and then they all agreed to stop,” the former official said.
A 2005 Justice Department memo released this year confirmed the visit. “These officials,” the memo said, “reported that enhanced techniques were no longer needed.”