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Psychologist Testifies About Torture Techniques In Sept. 11 Case


At the U.S. military court in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a psychologist who tortured the alleged 9/11 mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, is testifying this week. It's part of the criminal case against five accused 9/11 terrorists. Sacha Pfeiffer of NPR's Investigations team is with us from Guantanamo. She joins us via Skype. Morning, Sacha.


KING: This psychologist's name is James Mitchell. Why is James Mitchell on the stand?

PFEIFFER: So Jim Mitchell co-owned a company that was paid $80 million by the U.S. government to develop the CIA's torture techniques. These were used on suspected terrorists - things like stress positions, mock burials, slamming them against walls. Mitchell himself personally waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

Now, those methods basically fell out of favor over time, so the CIA eventually cut ties with Mitchell and canceled his contract. But he's been called as a witness in the 9/11 case because defense attorneys want to use him to show that evidence the FBI got from the 9/11 defendants should be barred from trial because it's tainted by torture.

KING: OK. Now, Sacha, we should remind people that the 9/11 trial has not actually started yet. What's happening now at Guantanamo is a pretrial hearing where some legal issues have to be worked out before the trial can start, right?

PFEIFFER: Correct. The 9/11 trial isn't scheduled to begin until next January.

KING: So what did James Mitchell say on the stand yesterday?

PFEIFFER: Well, right off the bat, he defiantly said that he came to Guantanamo not to help defense lawyers but on behalf of September 11 victims and their families. He was pretty argumentative for a lot of his testimony, and he clearly was not happy to be there.

He emphasized the climate of fear in the United States after the 9/11 attacks. He said the CIA had been afraid another attack was coming, possibly with nuclear or biological weapons, and the government was going to do whatever was necessary to prevent that. Mitchell put it this way. He said they were going to walk right up to the line of what was legal, put their toes on it and lean forward.

KING: OK. You recently did a story about how the 9/11 defendants having been tortured is making it really difficult to prosecute them. Can you remind us why that is?

PFEIFFER: Right. So the main reason is that evidence obtained through torture is rarely admissible in court. In fact, the statements the CIA got from the 9/11 defendants cannot be used at trial because they have to be given voluntarily. And if you torture someone, that's not a voluntary statement.

But Mitchell said the CIA was never interested in prosecuting the prisoners. It just was focused on preventing another attack. And Mitchell expressed no regrets about what he did. He actually got teary at one point and said, I thought my moral obligation to protect American lives outweighed the temporary discomfort of terrorists who had voluntarily taken up war against us. And Jim Mitchell said he would do the same thing again today.

KING: Did we learn anything new from him about how the prisoners were treated?

PFEIFFER: We heard a lot of details. He claims his techniques would not have been harmful if used correctly, but he said other people used them incorrectly. He acknowledged that slapping, for example, can result in an eye being scratched if it's done wrong. He talked about sleep deprivation, although he prefers to call it sleep disruption. He said it's meant to produce a foggy-headed, jet-lag-like effect, so prisoners would never get enough REM sleep and wouldn't be able to think clearly. He talked about how nudity was used as a humiliation tactic. With one prisoner, he said they debated whether to use nudity or put diapers on him because he had a leg injury and, as Mitchell said, if he inadvertently soiled himself, that could get in the wound and become infected. So they went back-and-forth over whether an infection was more likely to result if he was naked or in diapers.

KING: OK. This is really graphic testimony.


KING: And are you expecting more today?

PFEIFFER: Yes. Mitchell will be back on the stand probably all week. And his former business partner, Bruce Jessen, is expected after him, possibly next week.

KING: OK. Sacha Pfeiffer of NPR's Investigations team in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Thank you, Sacha.

PFEIFFER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.