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Mitchell, Jessen & Abu Zubaydah: ‘You’ve Lost Your Spine’

Joby Warrick and Peter Finn’s Washington Post account of the 2002 torture of Abu Zubaydah is the most detailed and nuanced journalistic report to date of how two contract psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, who were experienced in the Survival Evasion Resistance Escape program, ended up decisively influencing the interrogation of the highest-value al-Qaeda captive to date. There’s too much in this big piece to highlight, so read the whole thing. But Warrick and Finn portray Mitchell and Jessen as less monstrous than typically presented, showing them to be fervent advocates of subjecting Abu Zubaydah to extremely harsh interrogation procedures but eventually uncomfortable with waterboarding him.

The report supports a lot but not all of retired FBI Special Agent Ali Soufan’s account of the torture. Soufan testified in May that both the FBI and the CIA members of the team interrogating Abu Zubaydah came to oppose Mitchell’s abusive techniques. Warrick and Finn report that most of the team were appalled by what Mitchell proposed — inducing a state of “learned helplessness” through making Abu Zubaydah terrified of the team — but it took a long time for opposition to congeal; and even then, not many people aside from Soufan actively tried to stop the torture. But The Post’s account supports Soufan’s testimony that the harsher techniques produced less valuable information than Soufan’s attempts to build an emotional bond with Abu Zubaydah.

The Post’s report also introduces an often overlooked element to the torture: the degree to which CIA headquarters — and, it seems, the Bush White House — directed Abu Zubaydah’s torture from halfway around the world. Owing in large part to the heated post-9/11 climate, there were institutional pressures against stopping the torture. When Mitchell and Jessen were convinced that Abu Zubaydah had nothing to further to tell after four or five days’ worth of 83 waterboarding sessions, this was the reply:

“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.’ “

This, of course, was the implicit message that Mitchell and Jessen gave to the FBI and CIA interrogators who didn’t endorse Mitchell’s fear-based interrogation approach. And this is something that the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence appears to be exploring: how the widespread state of fear in the United States after 9/11 led the Bush administration to embrace an interrogations regimen that presumed its conclusions: al-Qaeda have bombs ready to go off at any minute; al-Qaeda members possess the information necessary to stop the attacks; al-Qaeda members will only respond to physical and psychological horror.

These premises turned out not to be true. But in the climate that existed after 9/11, when the intelligence community appeared to have missed warning signs for the attacks (never mind the August 2001 “bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” presidential briefing), knowledgeable interrogators like Ali Soufan who tried to introduce calm professionalism to the interrogations were marginalized.

Postscript: one thing the piece doesn’t answer is how Mitchell and Jessen came to the CIA’s attention in the first place. I filed a Freedom of Information Act request to find this out and was summarily rejected.

*You can follow TWI on Twitter and Facebook. *

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