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Torture At Issue During Pre-Trial Hearing At Guantanamo


Some stunning testimony this week at the U.S. military court in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. A psychologist who helped develop the CIA's torture program for accused terrorists was on the stand at a pretrial hearing in the case against five men charged in the September 11, 2001 terror attacks.

Sacha Pfeiffer of NPR's Investigations Team has been covering the trial. She returned last night from Guantanamo. A warning to our listeners, we will be talking about some disturbing details. Sacha, thanks so much for being with us.

SACHA PFEIFFER, BYLINE: Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: And remind us please who this psychologist is.

PFEIFFER: He is a retired Air Force psychologist named James Mitchell. And to help the CIA after 9/11, Mitchell took a military program that teaches people to cope with torture. And he reverse-engineered it, meaning he trained CIA interrogators to use those methods against prisoners to get them to answer questions, methods like putting people in painful stress positions and smashing them against walls. In fact, Mitchell himself personally waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged 9/11 mastermind.

SIMON: And why was he on the stand this week?

PFEIFFER: Because defense lawyers for the 9/11 defendants want the judge to throw out all the statements they made to the FBI on grounds that are tainted by torture. And the lawyers want to use Mitchell's testimony to help support their argument. Now, I had assumed much of his testimony would be censored because almost anything related to torture used to be top secret. And in Guantanamo's courtroom, reporters sit in a spectator gallery behind a glass wall. And we listen to what's happening on a 40-second delay. If anything is said the government doesn't want us to hear, the sound is cut off, and white noise is piped in. So I expected that cut off would be triggered a lot when Mitchell was on the stand.

SIMON: But I gather from your reporting this past week, whatever they cut off, he also said a lot of startling things.

PFEIFFER: He really did. You know, he described some torture techniques in a fair amount of detail, like putting a broomstick behind someone's knees and pushing them backward until their shoulders were touching the floor and their knees were at risk of getting dislocated or walling, which he described as putting a collar around someone's neck and, in his words, bouncing them against a wall. One of the Guantanamo prisoners got a traumatic brain injury from being walled. That's according to the prisoners' lawyers.

SIMON: Sacha, I have to ask, what was what was Mitchell's tone like when he described this torture?

PFEIFFER: Well, you know, this was so interesting. At first, he had a very casual, matter-of-fact way about describing his methods. In fact, he does not call it torture. He calls it coercive physical pressure. The CIA called it enhanced interrogation. And Mitchell had no apologies for anything he did. He even said he would do it again.

On his first day on the stand, he was very defiant and argumentative. He portrayed himself as an American patriot who had been trying to save our country from another attack by Islamic jihadists who might even have nuclear or biological weapons. And he said the U.S. government was justified in putting extreme pressure on suspected terrorists to try to get information out of them.

SIMON: I understand later in the testimony his tone did change a bit.

PFEIFFER: It did because Mitchell also said he thought the CAA had gone too far and verged on breaking the law. He said they were using his methods incorrectly and abusively. He described one secret overseas prison where men were chained naked to the ground in cold weather in what Mitchell said look like horse stalls. And even he was uncomfortable with that, even though he helped create the torture program.

Mitchell also testified that one of the 9/11 defendants was subjected to excessive abuse because he'd been used as a teaching tool for CIA employees learning interrogation techniques. Mitchell said the man had been used as, in his words, a training prop.

SIMON: It's one of these times you have to note a human being turned into a training prop.

PFEIFFER: Exactly. And, you know, listening to Mitchell's testimony made me think about how much the United States is still wrestling with having tortured people. Now, many people think it was morally reprehensible and many others believe torture was deserved after the horrific ways so many people died on 9/11. But torture is also why the 9/11 case is still dragging on nearly 20 years after those attacks because so much evidence cannot be used at trial since it was gained through torture. And as a result, the 9/11 defendants still have not been convicted of anything, yet billions of dollars have been spent at Guantanamo imprisoning them and trying to prosecute them. So whether you think it was right or wrong, torture is this enduring expensive legacy that still has consequences to this day.

SIMON: Sacha Pfeiffer of NPR's Investigations Team, who spent the last week in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, thanks so much.

PFEIFFER: You're welcome, Scott. Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPUNKSHINE'S "AND IT WAS A BIG SKY") 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.