By John Ryan | January 23, 2020 | Guantanamo Bay, News & Features
Sketch by Janet Hamlin. Defense attorney James Connell (left) completed his examination of James Mitchell on Thursday. Walter Ruiz, another lead defense counsel, completed his examination on Friday.
Guantanamo Naval Base, Cuba – James Mitchell, the psychologist who designed the CIA’s 9/11 interrogation program, testified on Thursday that he believed a rogue black-site officer had his team practice “enhanced interrogation techniques” on defendant Ammar al Baluchi to learn the coercive methods.
“It looks like they used your client like a training prop,” James Mitchell responded to al Baluchi’s lead lawyer, James Connell, during his third day of direct examination.
Mitchell's response came as he viewed a typed government summary of a 2003 interrogation session in which al Baluchi was slapped 20 times. Connell displayed multiple typed summaries of CIA sessions on the courtroom's monitor throughout the day as reference points for his questioning of Mitchell.
“To me, that sounds excessive,” Mitchell testified.
Interrogators at the black site known as “Cobalt” (presumed to have been in Afghanistan) also performed multiple rounds of “walling,” in which interrogators wrap a towel around a detainee's neck and then slam him against a wall. Outside court, Connell said the walling sessions caused the traumatic brain injury from which his client now suffers.
Connell told reporters that the Cobalt officer who ran these trainings – referred to as “NX2” in court to protect the long-deceased man's name – appeared to run a secondary or peripheral interrogation program outside of the one run by Mitchell and fellow psychologist John “Bruce” Jessen.
NX2 acted improperly in training interrogators and using overly violent methods, Mitchell testified several times this week. He testified Thursday that he and Jessen did not have their interrogators practice coercive methods on detainees.
On Thursday, Connell completed the portion of his direct examination that will be heard in open court. The government is waiting for all five defense teams to examine Mitchell before cross-examining him. Connell said after court that he will need two days of closed court to question Mitchell on classified matters.
NX2 also presided over abusive techniques inflicted on Khalid Shaikh Mohammad during his brief stay at Cobalt in March 2003 before arriving at another site, known as “Blue,” according to an interrogation summary Connell displayed in court and discussed with the witness.
Additional summaries of the interrogations Mitchell ran at Blue provided details of his waterboarding of Mohammad, along with other techniques; at one point, for example, Mohammad was deprived of sleep for 145 hours straight.
Mohammad’s legal team will question Mitchell next week. However, Connell questioned Mitchell about Mohammad to support his position that the FBI participated in the black site interrogations – by sending in questions for CIA personnel to ask the detainees – during the most extreme bouts of torture. Mitchell testified that he helped elicit information of obvious interest to the FBI but, during the interrogations, did not know that questions had come from the FBI.
“That’s over my pay grade,” Mitchell said.
Defense teams hope to convince the judge, Air Force Col. Shane Cohen, to suppress incriminating statements their clients made to FBI agents in January 2007 at Guantanamo Bay, after they were transferred from CIA custody at the black sites. The government contends these statements were given voluntarily during cordial interview sessions.
On Thursday, Mitchell testified that the enhanced interrogation sessions – in which the techniques were used or threatened – were meant to encourage participation with CIA personnel seeking information about future attacks. He testified that the mere presence of a towel in an interrogation room could induce a “Pavlovian” response of distress about walling, which he said could be reduced when the detainee answered questions truthfully.
Mitchell's primary goal was to graduate detainees into conversational “debriefing” sessions run by CIA experts and analysts who did not use any enhanced techniques, he explained. In these sessions, detainees were encouraged to speak freely and provide relevant intelligence details that went beyond the scope of a debriefer’s question.
According to a late May 2003 summary displayed in court, a cooperative al Baluchi was reported as being transferred to a larger cell and receiving a mat and clothing.
The grueling week of court testimony concluded on Friday with Walter Ruiz, the lead attorney for defendant Mustafa al Hawsawi, directing Mitchell’s memory back to the abusive behavior of NX2 and his interrogators at Cobalt.
Ruiz asked if Mitchell knew that while at Cobalt al Hawsawi had been subjected to waterboarding, slapping, walling, sleep deprivation and other techniques before the psychologist first met with al Hawsawi after he was transferred to Guantanamo Bay later in 2003. Mitchell spent significant time at Guantanamo Bay between late 2003 and 2004 when the detention facility housed a CIA black site. (The Guantanamo site is the only black-site location declassified by the government.)
Mitchell testified that he likely would have learned about the coercive methods used on al Hawsawi prior to meeting with him at Guantanamo Bay, though he did not recall all the details listed by Ruiz.
He said, however, that he did not believe al Hawsawi was “properly” waterboarded at Cobalt because the interrogators did not pour the water between the detainee’s nose and upper lip.
“They sort of poured it all over him,” Mitchell said. He said that the technique sounded more like “water dousing.”
Ruiz used his client’s treatment at Cobalt to question Mitchell about a December 2003 psychological assessment he and Jessen produced about al Hawsawi at Guantanamo Bay, in which the detainee is described as “amicable” and “deferential” while exhibiting some mild anxiety. Ruiz asked Mitchell why all the past torture would not factor into his assessment, which was displayed on the courtroom monitor.
“Did that not matter?” Ruiz asked.
Jeffrey Groharing, one of the prosecutors, objected to the use of the word torture in the question on the grounds that it forced Mitchell to make “a legal conclusion” about the interrogators’ conduct. (Prosecutors do not, however, object to defense attorneys using the word torture in oral arguments.)
Ruiz then entered into a tense exchange with Cohen – who said he didn’t care what the attorneys call the interrogations but said using torture would slow down the examination.
“I’m not going to sanitize this for their convenience,” Ruiz said.
Ruiz later asked Mitchell if he avoided using the word torture because torture is a crime and feared criminal prosecution. After Mitchell responded “no,” Ruiz played a video clip of a podcast in which Mitchell told an interviewer that "we never used the word torture, 'cause torture's a crime."
According to Mitchell’s testimony Friday, the CIA used the Guantanamo Bay black site exclusively for debriefings without any enhanced techniques. He remembered al Hawsawi being cooperative and friendly but did not recall with detail the intelligence topics they covered in their meetings.
Al Hawsawi was the sole defendant in court for much of Friday, though al Baluchi and defendant Ramzi bin al Shibh appeared in the afternoon. Al Hawsawi left briefly in the morning to get doses of Tramadol and Tylenol to relieve pain in his rectum. Ruiz has repeatedly said in court and in media briefings that the rectal damage resulted from “sodomy” in the form of an unnecessary rectal exam at a black site.
Mitchell testified Friday that he did not recall when he learned about the severity of the damage to al Hawsawi’s rectum.
David Nevin, a lawyer for Mohammad, will begin his team’s examination of Mitchell on Monday. Nevin told Cohen late Friday that he would finish his questioning in less than two days.
“Obviously a lot of water under the bridge now,” Nevin said.
About the author: John Ryan (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a co-founder and the Editor-in-Chief of Lawdragon Inc., where he oversees all web and magazine content and provides regular coverage of the military commissions at Guantanamo Bay. When he’s not at GTMO, John is based in Brooklyn. He has covered complex legal issues for 20 years and has won multiple awards for his journalism, including a New York Press Club Award in Journalism for his coverage of the Sept. 11 case. View our staff page.