Interviews Offer More Nuanced Look At Roles of CIA Contractors, Concerns Of Officials During Interrogations
Internal Rifts on Road to Torment
In April 2002, as the terrorism suspect known as Abu Zubaida lay in a
Bangkok hospital bed, top U.S. counterterrorism officials gathered at
CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., for a series of meetings on an urgent
problem: how to get him to talk.
Put him in a cell filled with cadavers, was one suggestion,
according to a former U.S. official with knowledge of the brainstorming
sessions. Surround him with naked women, was another. Jolt him with
electric shocks to the teeth, was a third.
One man's certitude lanced through the debate, according to a
participant in one of the meetings. James E. Mitchell, a retired
clinical psychologist for the Air Force, had studied al-Qaeda
"The thing that will make him talk," the participant recalled Mitchell saying, "is fear."
Now, as the Senate intelligence committee examines the CIA's
interrogation program, investigators are focusing in part on Mitchell
and John "Bruce" Jessen, former CIA contractors who helped design and
oversee Abu Zubaida's interrogation. These men have been portrayed as
eager proponents of coercion, but the former U.S. official, whose
account was corroborated in part by Justice Department documents, said
they also rejected orders from Langley to prolong the most severe
pressure on the detainee. The former official's account, alongside the
recollections of those familiar with events at the CIA's secret prison
in Thailand, yields a more nuanced understanding of their role than has
previously been available.
Interviews with nearly two dozen current and former U.S. officials
also provide new evidence that the imposition of harsh techniques
provoked dissension among the officials charged with questioning Abu
Zubaida, from the time of his capture through the period when the most
grueling torments were applied.
In August 2002, as the first anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001,
attacks approached, officials at CIA headquarters became increasingly
concerned that they were not learning enough from their detainee in
Thailand. When the interrogators concluded that Abu Zubaida had no more
to tell, Langley scolded them: "You've lost your spine." If Mitchell
and his team eased up and then al-Qaeda attacked the United States
again, agency managers warned, "it would be on the team's back,"
recalled the former U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of
anonymity to discuss classified information.
The officials who authorized or participated in harsh interrogations
continue to dispute how effective such methods were and whether
important information could have been obtained from Abu Zubaida and
others without them. In March, The Washington Post reported that former
senior government officials said that not a single significant plot was
foiled as a result of Abu Zubaida's coerced confessions.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, in a 2007 report made
public this year, said the application of harsh interrogation methods,
"either singly or in combination, constituted torture."
George Little, a CIA spokesman, said harsh interrogation was always
"a small fraction of the agency's counterterrorism mission." Now, he
added, "the CIA is focused not on the past, but on analyzing current
terrorist threats and thwarting terrorist plots."
Mitchell, 58, who remained a CIA contractor until this spring,
declined to be interviewed. In conversations with close colleagues in
recent months, he has rejected the popular portrayal of his role,
maintaining that he steered the agency away from far more brutal
methods toward practices that would not cause permanent harm to
Jessen, 60, declined to comment.
Yesterday, Mitchell issued a brief statement: "It may be easy for
people who were not there and didn't feel the pressure of the threats
to say how much better they could have done it. But they weren't there.
We were and we did the best that we could."
The 'Manchester Manual'
A silver-maned, voluble man, Mitchell had retired from the Air Force
before the Sept. 11 attacks and won several government contracts,
including one from the CIA to study ways to assess people who
volunteered information to the agency. While still in the military
training program known as SERE -- for Survival, Evasion, Resistance,
Escape -- he and his colleagues called themselves "Masters of the Mind
[Expletive]," according to two military officials who worked in the
In December 2001, the CIA asked Mitchell to analyze the "Manchester
Manual," a document seized in a raid in Britain that described al-Qaeda
resistance techniques. Mitchell asked Jessen, a senior SERE
psychologist, to help prepare the assessment, according to Senate
The Mitchell-Jessen memo, which was distributed widely within the
CIA, discussed the efficacy of techniques such as sleep deprivation and
noise bombardment but did not broach waterboarding.
"It is not realistic to think someone who is hardened will talk
unless they fear that something bad is going to happen to them," said
the former U.S. official, describing Mitchell and Jessen's thinking.
"They didn't think rapport-building techniques would work. But they
also didn't [advocate] using waterboarding right away."
Mitchell told acquaintances that he also drew important lessons from
the theory of "learned helplessness," a term psychologists use to
describe people or animals reduced to a state of complete helplessness
by some form of coercion or pain, such as electric shock. Mitchell
insisted, however, that coercive interrogation should not reduce a
prisoner to despair. Instead, he argued, "you want them to have the
view that something they could say would hold the key to getting them
out of the situation they were in," according to the former official.
"If you convince [a terrorism suspect] he's helpless, he's no good to you," the former official said.
A Breakthrough in Bangkok
In early April 2002, some officials at the CIA's Counterterrorist
Center were not convinced that the man in U.S. custody was indeed Zayn
al-Abidin Muhammed Hussein, Abu Zubaida's given name. The Saudi-born
Palestinian, then 29, had been sought by the FBI on suspicion that he
played a role in a foiled 1999 plan to attack Los Angeles International
Airport and tourist destinations in Jordan.
The detainee had been captured in Pakistan in late March 2002 after
a firefight that left him wounded in the thigh, groin and stomach.
After being treated in Pakistan, he was flown to Thailand for
The CIA dispatched FBI agents Ali Soufan and Steve Gaudin for an
initial look. The two men arrived a few hours before the wounded man
was transferred to a hastily assembled CIA interrogation facility near
one of Bangkok's airports.
Details of their experience and that of the CIA officials who
followed them to Thailand with Mitchell were gleaned from public
testimony, official documents and interviews with current and former
intelligence and law-enforcement officials with access to confidential
files. Through the FBI, Gaudin declined to comment for this article,
and Soufan referred reporters to his congressional testimony and other
Soufan, a Lebanese American, later described the FBI's method as
"informed interrogation." It was based on "leveraging our knowledge of
the detainee's culture and mind-set, together with using information we
already know about him," he told a Senate panel in May.
On the agents' first night in Thailand, Abu Zubaida went into septic
shock because of his wounds and was rushed to a local hospital. Gaudin
and Soufan dabbed his lips with ice, told him to ask God for strength
and cleaned him up after he soiled himself, according to official
documents and interviews.
At his bedside, Gaudin asked Soufan to show Abu Zubaida a photograph
of Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, an Egyptian suspect in the bombings of two
U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998. The two agents had photos of
terrorism suspects on a handheld computer, and Gaudin accidentally
displayed the wrong photo.
Abu Zubaida said: "This is Mukhtar. This is the mastermind of 9/11."
The agents did not know that Mukhtar, a name that had surfaced in
some raw intelligence and an Osama bin Laden video, was a nickname for
Khalid Sheik Mohammed. Nor did they know that Mohammed was an al-Qaeda
Abu Zubaida had given the agents the first positive link to the man
who would later be charged as the chief planner of the Sept. 11
'Creating the Atmosphere'
With the FBI's breakthrough, the CIA recognized that the captured
man was indeed Abu Zubaida and began assembling a team to send to
Thailand. Agency officials had no firm notion of what a post-Sept. 11
interrogation of a terrorism suspect should look like.
"It was not a job we sought out," said one former senior
intelligence official involved in early decisions on interrogation.
"The generals didn't want to do it. The FBI said no. It fell to the
agency because we had the [legal] authorities and could operate
In Mitchell, the CIA found an authoritative professional who had
answers, despite an absence of practical experience in interrogating
terrorism suspects or data showing that harsh tactics work.
"Here was a guy with a title and a shingle," recalled the
participant in the Langley meeting, "and he was saying things that
others in the room already believed to be true."
Mitchell boarded a CIA plane for Bangkok with R. Scott Shumate, a
CIA psychologist; two agency officers who worked undercover; and a
small team of analysts and support staff, including security personnel
to control Abu Zubaida.
Among those on the plane was an agency expert on interrogation and
debriefing, an officer who was part of a training program intended to
help the agency detect double agents and assess recruits for foreign
espionage. The trainers taught strategies for extracting sensitive
information but prohibited coercive tactics.
When Mitchell and the CIA team arrived in Thailand, Abu Zubaida was
still in the hospital. The two FBI agents, Soufan and Gaudin, met the
CIA officers at a nearby hotel for a debriefing.
Although senior CIA officials in Bangkok were nominally in charge,
they deferred to Mitchell, according to several sources familiar with
events at the prison.
"There was a big sense of arrogance about him," one source said.
After Abu Zubaida was discharged, the FBI was shut out of the
interrogations as Mitchell began establishing the conditions for Abu
Zubaida's interrogation -- "creating the atmosphere," as he put it to
In the initial stages, Abu Zubaida was stripped of his clothes while
CIA officers took turns at low-intensity questioning. Later, Mitchell
added sleep deprivation and a constant bombardment of loud music,
including tracks by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. After each escalation,
he would dispatch an interrogator into Abu Zubaida's cell to issue a
single demand: "Tell me what I want to know."
Mitchell sometimes spoke directly to the prisoner, but unlike the
CIA officers, he wore a mask, according to two sources familiar with
the events in Thailand.
He repeatedly sought authorization from the CIA's Counterterrorist Center for his actions.
"The program was fully put together, vetted and run by the
counterterrorism folks at the agency," the former U.S. official said.
"CIA headquarters was involved directly in every detail of
interrogation. Permission had to be obtained before every technique was
used, and the dialogue was very heavy. There were cables and also an IM
system. All Mitchell's communications were with the Counterterrorist
In Bangkok, word circulated among those at the secret site that the
tactics had been approved "downtown" -- agency jargon for the White
Soufan testified to Congress in May that Abu Zubaida went silent
once Mitchell took charge. Within days of the CIA team's arrival, the
cables between Bangkok and Langley became devoid of new revelations.
Agency officials decided to let the FBI back into the interrogations,
but on the condition that forced nudity and sleep deprivation be
allowed to continue.
The CIA team lowered the temperature in Abu Zubaida's cell until the
detainee turned blue. The FBI turned it back up, setting off a clash
Under FBI questioning, Abu Zubaida identified an operative he knew
as Abdullah al-Mujahir, the alias, he said, of an American citizen with
a Latino name. An investigation involving multiple agencies identified
the suspect as Jose Padilla, the al-Qaeda operative later convicted of
providing material support for terrorism.
"In two different bits, after sleep deprivation, is when Abu Zubaida
gave clues about who Padilla might be," the former U.S. official said.
"When that was put together with other CIA sources, they were able to
identify who he was. . . . The cables will not show that the FBI just
asked friendly questions and got information about Padilla."
As more miseries were heaped on Abu Zubaida, some members of the CIA
team joined the FBI agents in pushing back. Among them was Shumate, the
CIA psychologist, who voiced regret that he had played a role in
recommending Mitchell to the agency, former associates said. Shumate
did not return phone calls and e-mails seeking comment.
Soufan later told Justice Department investigators examining the
FBI's role in detainee interrogations that he viewed Mitchell's early
methods as "borderline torture."
In addition, one of the CIA team members told others in the group
that he believed Abu Zubaida was being honest when he claimed to know
nothing about significant al-Qaeda plots, according to two officials
with access to classified reports.
Although Abu Zubaida was not a member of al-Qaeda and had limited
relations with bin Laden, he was a font of information on the
membership of the terrorist group because of his long-standing ties
with Mohammed and North African jihadists, according to former
intelligence and law-enforcement officials who have read his files. Abu
Zubaida's attorneys maintain that he had no connection with al-Qaeda.
"You've got it all wrong," the detainee told one interrogator in May
2002, according to a former intelligence official with access to
sensitive records. Abu Zubaida said that al-Qaeda had been surprised at
the devastating efficacy of the Sept. 11 attacks and that any plans for
future attacks were mere aspirations.
Abu Zubaida was lying but eventually would disclose everything,
Mitchell asserted to his colleagues, citing his backers at the
Counterterrorist Center. He repeated that his methods had been approved
"at the highest levels," one of the interrogators later told the
Justice Department investigators.
At the secret prison, dissent over Mitchell's methods peaked. First
Shumate left, followed by Soufan. At the site, Shumate had expressed
concerns about sleep deprivation, and back in Langley he complained
again about Mitchell's tactics, according to the former U.S. official
and another source familiar with events in Thailand.
Then one of the CIA debriefers left. In early June, Gaudin flew to
Washington for a meeting on what was happening in Thailand, and the FBI
did not allow him to return.
Jessen, newly retired from the military, arrived in Thailand that
month. Mitchell and his partner continued to ratchet up the pressure on
Abu Zubaida, although Bush administration lawyers had not yet
authorized the CIA's harshest interrogation measures. That came
verbally in late July and then in writing on Aug. 1, paving the way to
Interrogators wrapped a towel around Abu Zubaida's neck and slammed
him into a plywood wall mounted in his cell. He was slapped in the
face. He was placed in a coffin-like wooden box in which he was forced
to crouch, with no light and a restricted air supply, he later told
delegates from the Red Cross.
Finally, he was waterboarded.
Abu Zubaida told the Red Cross that a black cloth was placed over
his face and that interrogators used a plastic bottle to pour water on
the fabric, creating the sensation that he was drowning.
The former U.S. official said that waterboarding forced Abu Zubaida
to reveal information that led to the Sept. 11, 2002, capture of Ramzi
Binalshibh, the key liaison between the Hamburg cell led by Sept. 11
hijacker Mohammed Atta and al-Qaeda's leadership in Afghanistan.
But others contend that Binalshibh's arrest was the result of
several pieces of intelligence, including the successful interrogation
by the FBI of a suspect held at Bagram air base in Afghanistan who had
been in contact via satellite phone with Binalshibh, as well as
information gleaned from an interview Binalshibh gave to the television
Abu Zubaida was waterboarded 83 times over four or five days, and
Mitchell and Jessen concluded that the prisoner was broken, the former
U.S. official said. "They became convinced that he was cooperating.
There was unanimity within the team."
One More Time
CIA officials at the Counterterrorist Center were not convinced.
"Headquarters was sending daily harangues, cables, e-mails insisting
that waterboarding continue for 30 days because another attack was
believed to be imminent," the former official said. "Headquarters said
it would be on the team's back if an attack happened. They said to the
interrogation team, 'You've lost your spine.' "
Mitchell and Jessen now found themselves in the same position as Soufan, Shumate and others.
"It was hard on them, too," the former U.S. official said. "They are psychologists. They didn't enjoy this at all."
The two men threatened to quit if the waterboarding continued and
insisted that officials from Langley come to Thailand to watch the
procedure, the former official said.
After a CIA delegation arrived, Abu Zubaida was strapped down one
more time. As water poured over his cloth-covered mouth, he gasped for
breath. "They all watched, and then they all agreed to stop," the
former official said.
A 2005 Justice Department memo released this year confirmed the
visit. "These officials," the memo said, "reported that enhanced
techniques were no longer needed."
Staff writers Walter Pincus and R. Jeffrey Smith and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.