On the same day President Donald Trump announced that he believes torture works and vowed sweeping changes for how the United States conducts war on terror, former Spokane psychologist James Mitchell granted a rare interview and said the country needs some “legal form of coercion.”
In an interview with ABC News, Trump said he would wage war against Islamic State militants to keep the United States safe. Asked specifically about waterboarding, which simulates drowning, Trump mentioned atrocities committed by the extremist militant group against Christians and others. “We have to fight fire with fire.”
Trump said he would consult with new Defense Secretary James Mattis and CIA Director Mike Pompeo before authorizing any new policy. But he said he asked top intelligence officials in the past: “Does torture work? And the answer was ‘Yes, absolutely,’ ” Trump said.
In a later interview on Fox News, Mitchell said a combination of things, including waterboarding, was effective in getting information from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed for what Mitchell claims was information that helped disrupt a second wave of attacks.
“Somewhere between waterboarding at worst and the Army field manual, there needs to be some legal form of coercion,” Mitchell said. “We should not have our national defense protecting us from terrorists based on what some terrorist is willing to tell us voluntarily.”
Mitchell and his partner Bruce Jessen are two former survival school psychologists at Fairchild Air Force Base who earned millions of dollars in government payments for devising, and carrying out, the Bush administration’s “enhanced interrogation” program for high-value detainees in the war on terror. Both men are currently being sued in federal court by the ACLU on behalf of three detainees, including one man who died from exposure.
A U.S. Senate investigation later found that Mitchell and Jessen’s techniques produced no actionable intelligence in the war on terror. President Barack Obama then terminated the contract with the pair in 2009.
Mitchell and Jessen routinely decline interview requests from The Spokesman-Review but occasionally grant interviews to other news outlets. In the Wednesday interview on Fox, Mitchell said he believes Trump should revisit how the government conducts interview techniques.
“I don’t want to be the poster boy for waterboarding because I am the guy who tried to get the CIA to stop waterboarding after we did it on three people,” he said. “There is a handful of people out there, who are the worst of the worst, who are highly committed to their cause, who … are not going to pony up and volunteer information so that we can disrupt those attacks.”
Beyond reviewing interrogation techniques and facilities, Trump’s draft order would instruct the Pentagon to send newly captured “enemy combatants” to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, instead of closing the detention facility as Obama wanted. Altogether, the possible changes could mark a dramatic return to how the Bush administration waged its campaign against al-Qaida and other extremist groups.
Trump spokesman Sean Spicer, questioned about the draft order, said it was “not a White House document” but would not comment further.
House Speaker Paul Ryan told MSNBC the draft order was not written by the Trump administration. “My understanding is this was written by somebody who worked on the transition. This is not something the Trump administration is planning on, working on,” Ryan said.
The draft says U.S. laws should be obeyed at all times and explicitly rejects “torture.” But its reconsideration of the harsh techniques banned by Obama and Congress raises questions about the definition of the word and is sure to inflame passions in the U.S. and abroad.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, President George W. Bush authorized a covert program that led to dozens of detainees being held in secret locations overseas and to interrogation tactics that included sleep deprivation, slapping and slamming against walls, confinement in small boxes, prolonged isolation and even death threats. Three detainees faced waterboarding. Many developed psychological problems.
While some former government leaders insist the program was effective in obtaining critical intelligence, many others say the abuses weakened America’s moral standing in the world, hurt morale among intelligence officers and proved ineffective before Obama shut it down.
The AP obtained the draft order from a U.S. official, who said it had been distributed by the White House for consultations before Trump signs it. The official wasn’t authorized to speak publicly on the matter and demanded anonymity.
The Pentagon didn’t immediately comment and Spicer, Trump’s press secretary, said, “I have no idea where it came from.” But reports of the upcoming order quickly sparked alarm among Republicans and Democrats.
“The president can sign whatever executive orders he likes. But the law is the law,” said Republican Sen. John McCain, tortured himself as a prisoner during the Vietnam War. “We are not bringing back torture in the United States of America.”
On the campaign trail, Trump spoke emphatically about toughening the U.S. approach to fighting the Islamic State group. He said he would authorize waterboarding and a “hell of a lot worse.” After winning the election, however, he appeared to backtrack, pointedly citing Mattis’ advice that torture is ineffective.
Pompeo, Trump’s CIA director, said in his confirmation hearing that he would abide by all laws. But he also said he’d consult with CIA and other government experts on whether current restrictions were an “impediment to gathering vital intelligence to protect the country or whether any rewrite of the Army Field Manual is needed.”
The Associated Press and Fox News contributed to this report.