News, Culture and NPR for Central & Northern Michigan
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
91.7FM Alpena and WCML-TV Channel 6 Alpena are off the air. Click here to learn more.

Architect Of CIA Torture Interrogation Program Testifies Further


In Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, today, a psychologist who helped design the CIA torture program for accused terrorists testified that he eventually came to believe those torture techniques had gone too far and verged on breaking the law.

Sacha Pfeiffer of NPR's Investigations team is in Guantanamo listening to that testimony. And we want to warn you that listeners may find some of the details from the testimony disturbing.

Hi, Sacha.


SHAPIRO: Tell us about who this psychologist is and why he's on the stand.

PFEIFFER: His name is James Mitchell, and he co-owned a company that was paid $80 million by the U.S. government to develop the CIA's torture program. He's been called as a witness in the criminal case against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other men charged in the September 11 terror attacks. That case goes to trial next January, and this week, there's a pretrial hearing.

SHAPIRO: And you've been reporting this week that Mitchell has been defiant on the stand. He says he's an American patriot and that he was trying to protect the U.S. from another terror attack.

PFEIFFER: Right. In fact, Mitchell testified that he would do what he did all over again. He's been unapologetic. But his tone changed today. He said he felt that some CIA interrogators were using his techniques in abusive and unauthorized ways, so he got to the point where he didn't want to be involved anymore. But he said officials above him told him he had lost his spine, and it would be his fault if more people died in a catastrophic attack on the U.S. Mitchell said the implication was that if we weren't willing to carry their water, they would send someone else who would do it, and they may be harsher than we were.

SHAPIRO: And so, ultimately, he decided to stay.

PFEIFFER: He did. Mitchell stayed. And on the stand, he talked about a specific prisoner named Abu Zubaydah who was being held at a black site. Those are the CIA's overseas network of secret prisons. The CIA thought Zubaydah had information about another upcoming attack in the U.S. So he was waterboarded more than 80 times.

SHAPIRO: Eighty.

PFEIFFER: But Mitchell thought - 80 - eight, zero. But Mitchell thought they'd gotten all the information they could out of Zubaydah. And Zubaydah had agreed to cooperate, so Mitchell wanted the waterboarding to stop. He even helped draft a message to CIA headquarters saying - and this is a quote - the intensity of the pressure applied to him thus far approaches the legal limit. That message also said Zubaydah's mental status was deteriorating dangerously.

SHAPIRO: Well, how did the CIA respond to that message from Mitchell?

PFEIFFER: Mitchell said the CIA told him to keep going. It thought Zubaydah still might be withholding information. So Mitchell said he decided he would waterboard Zubaydah just one more time, but he wanted a senior CIA official to come see in person what it looked like.

SHAPIRO: So after more than 80 times, for this additional one, did a CIA official come watch?

PFEIFFER: Yes. The person attended, and Mitchell described the scene where water kept being poured over Zubaydah's face for as long as 40 seconds at a time. Notes from that waterboarding session said that Zubaydah was having involuntary body spasms - his legs, his chest, his arms - that he was crying. Mitchell said some of the people in the room watching got tearful. Mitchell said he himself got tearful. He said, I thought it was unnecessary, and I felt sorry for him. And he said that is what it took for the CIA to agree to stop waterboarding Zubaydah.

SHAPIRO: And where is Abu Zubaydah now?

PFEIFFER: He's been held at Guantanamo for more than 13 years, and he's never been charged with a crime. He's what some Guantanamo lawyers call a forever prisoner.

SHAPIRO: Sounds like this testimony from Mitchell was extremely intense. Was there anything else he said today that stood out to you?

PFEIFFER: Yeah, it was intense for pretty much all of it. He talked about some stress positions used on prisoners that weren't authorized, like putting a broomstick behind someone's knees and making them lean backward until their shoulders were touching the floor. He said he was worried the prisoner's knees would be dislocated. In another case, the prisoner was forced to lean against a wall at an angle using only his forehead. And when he started to tip over, other interrogators pushed his forehead into the wall. Mitchell thought that might sprain the guy's neck. He also said the reason the prisoner was tortured that way is he wouldn't address a certain guard as sir.

SHAPIRO: That is Sacha Pfeiffer of NPR's investigations team, reporting for us this week from the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Thank you, Sacha.

PFEIFFER: You're welcome, Ari. 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.