By John Ryan | January 31, 2020 | Guantanamo Bay, News & Features
Sketch by Janet Hamlin. James Mitchell (above) completed his testimony Friday morning before John "Bruce" Jessen took the stand.
Guantanamo Naval Base, Cuba – The CIA interrogator who subjected Khalid Shaikh Mohammad to wall-slamming, waterboarding and other “enhanced” techniques testified on Thursday that he and the detainee later developed a cordial relationship in which the two men held hands during conversational intelligence debriefings.
“I think that’s part of his charm initiative,” James Mitchell said of the handholding when questioned by one of the prosecutors, Jeffrey Groharing.
The former CIA psychologist estimated he spent up to 2,000 hours with Mohammad during his time at CIA black sites between March 2003 and September 2006. He testified that he saw Mohammad transition from an early posture of belligerence and hostility to a more cooperative state in which he displayed his intelligence and charisma.
That testimony elicited by the government Thursday afternoon followed the fifth defense team's direct examination of KSM's interrogator. Defense teams called Mitchell to testify in support of their claims that past torture at the CIA black sites tainted confessions their clients later made to FBI agents at Guantanamo Bay in 2007.
Over the course of his eight days on the witness stand, Mitchell has credited the enhanced interrogations for convincing Mohammad and his four co-defendants to participate in debriefings that did not employ physically coercive methods.
Under cross-examination by Groharing, Mitchell said that the five defendants generally did not show signs of physical or emotional distress during the debriefing phases of their confinement at the black sites. (He said that Mustafa al Hawsawi did express concern about damage done to his rectum.) Mitchell testified that the defendants did not complain of flashbacks or nightmares about the earlier enhanced interrogations, and that they did not appear to have lost their ability to voluntarily participate in interviews.
On redirect examination by David Nevin, a lawyer for Mohammad, Mitchell acknowledged that the friends-holding-hands relationship began with “an implied threat” that Mohammad could be returned to his prior conditions if he stopped participating. Mitchell confirmed that he threatened to cut the throat of one of Mohammad’s sons as Mohammad transitioned from the enhanced phase to the debriefings.
As he has at numerous times since last week, however, Mitchell deflected responsibility to other CIA personnel for the overall conditions of the black sites.
“He was never in my custody,” Mitchell, who was a contractor for the CIA, said of Mohammad.
He testified that he brought Mohammad “as many good things as bad things.”
Defense attorneys have long claimed that the CIA program caused their clients severe physical and mental damage. In his redirect, James Harrington, the lead attorney for Ramzi bin al Shibh, confronted Mitchell with passages about his client from the Senate’s summary report of the CIA program. One passage said that bin al Shibh “exhibited behavioral and psychological problems, including visions, paranoia, insomnia, and attempts at self-harm.”
Mitchell acknowledged that statement was based on cables containing observations from CIA psychologists, whom the witness had earlier praised in several days of testimony.
Mitchell developed the interrogation program with fellow psychologist John “Bruce” Jessen, who did not take the stand until 10:00 a.m. Friday – which meant Jessen had less than a day of public testimony in the two-week session.
Alka Pradhan, a civilian lawyer for Ammar al Baluchi, walked Jessen through his long experience with the “Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape” (SERE) program – which served as the basis for the CIA’s enhanced techniques – before turning to Jessen’s interactions with the early detainees.
Al Baluchi spent several months at a black site known as “Cobalt,” described by Mitchell in his testimony as a particularly brutal site at which interrogators used unauthorized techniques. Under questioning by Pradhan, Jessen provided similar criticisms based on his time at Cobalt in the fall of 2002. He testified that he provided the site manager with a list of suggested improvements, including protocols for providing medical care, before leaving the site.
Jessen recounted getting a phone call months later from an official in the CIA’s Office of Inspector General who said he wanted to discuss Gul Rahman, a detainee that Jessen had observed at Cobalt.
“He’s dead, isn’t he?” Jessen said he immediately responded. (Rahman had died not long after Jessen left Cobalt.)
Al Baluchi arrived at Cobalt in May 2003. The proceedings concluded before Pradhan could question Jessen about her client’s experiences at the CIA sites; the judge, Air Force Col. Shane Cohen, excused the witness “subject to recall” shortly before 5:30 p.m. It’s unclear when, and how, Pradhan and the other defense teams will next question the witness.
The next session, set for Feb. 10-21, will involve witness testimony from FBI agents called for the suppression motions, as well as testimony and oral arguments for unrelated matters. That queues Jessen up for the three-week hearing in March.
Gary Sowards, the lead lawyer for Mohammad, told Cohen that he was concerned about what Jessen said to Pradhan at the start of his testimony: Jessen’s view was that he was “done” as a witness after spending two weeks on the Naval Base for this session. Commission rules prohibit a judge from forcing a civilian who is subpoenaed to travel to the base, though a witness can be required to participate from a remote video site.
Sowards asserted, however, that because Jessen was currently under the commission’s jurisdiction on Guantanamo Bay, Cohen could order Jessen to return to the base as a witness and subject him to potential contempt sanctions if he chose not to attend.
Cohen said he did not want to make such a decision in a matter of minutes, with Jessen waiting outside the courtroom. Sowards objected, contending that the judge was not doing “all that is reasonably necessary” to secure the in-person attendance of a critical witness.
The judge, clearly annoyed, quickly departed the court after two defense teams said they joined Sowards’ position.
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.