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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Comments offer insight into key player in CIA storm

James Mitchell – considered one of the men who built a torture empire from Spokane – has started speaking publicly.

And though he mostly dances around the shocking and specific allegations that have arisen against the work he did, Mitchell still manages to find a lot to say.

For example: Did the waterboarding of CIA detainees amount to torture?

“We know it didn’t in 2001 through about 2006 or 7,” he told Vice News in an interview posted this week. “I don’t think it’s the right thing to do; I don’t think it’s the wrong thing to do. I think you can do it in a way that it constitutes torture; I think you can do it in a way that constitutes training, I think you can do it in a way that it helps a person shift their priorities so they experience less abuse later on. It’s like every tool in the toolbag. You can under-use it, you can overuse it.”

Those comments came during Mitchell’s first appearance on camera for an interview. He has also spoken to other reporters in recent days, including the Associated Press and the Independent of London. I left messages at his Florida number on Thursday, and also tried to contact Mitchell’s former partner, Bruce Jessen, at his home, but without success.

The role of the two men – as well as a handful of other Spokane men who moved with them from careers in Fairchild survival training into government contracting – has been known to some degree since 2007, when it was first reported nationally and by The Spokesman-Review. Since then, journalists, human rights groups and congressional investigations have added information and detail about the scope and nature of their work.

The Senate report on CIA interrogation issued this week – a report that has drawn vigorous objections from the GOP members of the committee, CIA officials and others – depicted the two men and their firm as designing the “enhanced interrogation program” based on turning survival school techniques on their head, as well as overseeing and carrying out the techniques in secret prisons around the world. The men also evaluated the effectiveness of their own work – a role that came with a stark conflict of interest, given that the men were contracted to earn millions more if the work continued.

The Senate report said Mitchell, Jessen & Associates earned $81 million in government payments before the interrogation program was disbanded in 2009. The firm had a downtown Spokane office. The full value of the contract was $180 million. The government has continued to cover expenses for the principals of the firm, including indemnification and legal costs through 2021.

Mitchell told the AP, “I completely understand why the human rights organizations in the United States are upset by the Senate report. I would be upset by it, too, if it were true.”

“What they are asking you to believe is that multiple directors of the CIA and analysts who made their living for years doing this lied to the federal government, or were too stupid to know that the intelligence they were getting wasn’t useful.”

Mitchell and Jessen have said almost nothing publicly, until now. In April, as rumblings over the Senate report were being heard, the Guardian in London interviewed Mitchell, who criticized the report and defended his work. He struck a similar tone in the on-camera interview with VICE, which opens with a scene of him canoeing out into an alligator swamp, which he said is what he likes to do to relax and think.

Asked if the accounts of him being the “architect” of the interrogation program were correct, he said: “I’d really like to respond to those questions, but I can’t. I have a nondisclosure agreement and until I’m released from that I can’t answer those kinds of questions. Although I’d like to, I’d love to be able to clarify some of the things people are saying because some of the things people are saying are inaccurate.”

The VICE interviewer, Kaj Larsen, had once undergone waterboarding himself.

“I’ve been waterboarded, too,” Mitchell told Larsen. “I saw you waterboarded on a video. I thought ‘Holy cow, look at what they’re doing to that guy.’ ”

Is it effective as an interrogation technique?

“I’ll give you my experience in the survival school,” Mitchell said. “Bruce Jessen and I spent most of our Air Force career trying to get the Navy to stop waterboarding, because we thought it did the enemy’s job for us. I can’t tell you how many POWs I interviewed who said, ‘I’m not going to put up with that. I’ll tell them whatever they want to know. I’m not going to go through that again.’ ”

He added, “To be candid with you, if you’re going to break somebody’s legs or waterboard them, they’d probably prefer you break their legs, because it’s less distressing, oddly enough.”

Mitchell was asked about his response to the news that ISIS terrorists had used waterboarding against captives.

“I feel horrible about that,” he said. “I really do. But I think the primary responsibility of that lies with the media. Because the program was classified. They’re the ones that spread it out in public, made it a hotbed issue, signaled to the entire world that big segments of the U.S. population would be horrified by it.”

Larsen took exception to this idea – that telling people what happened was somehow worse than what was done.

“I didn’t say all the fault,” Mitchell said. “I think it’s shared. I think it’s 50-50. … Do we stop shooting people because the bad guys shoot people?”

Mitchell said that in most interrogations, the best approach is the “rapport building” techniques that many experienced interrogators also support. But he said some people are trained to resist, and that harsher methods can work with them. He said those methods were not designed to elicit intelligence in the moment, but to break down detainees to cooperate eventually.

“It wasn’t designed so you would ask questions about actual intelligence while the detainee was experiencing the enhanced interrogation program,” he said. “So it’s almost like a good cop-bad cop setup, with a really bad cop … a bad cop that was bad enough that the person would engage with the good cop.”

Mitchell said he became interested in radical Islam after a friend of his was captured and killed in the 1990s. After the 9/11 attacks, he said he felt compelled to help personally.

“Personally, I don’t give a damn whether you worship, what god you worship, which way you face when you worship, what kind of building you worship in – I don’t care,” he said. “But literally, when you want to kill my friends, you want to kill my family and you want to destroy my way of life, you’ve got my full attention.”

Asked if there was any “red line” for interrogation techniques, he said, “I don’t think you should do anything that violates the torture convention.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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