Getting terrorism suspect Abu Zubaida to talk was a challenge. (Associated Press )
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 resistance techniques.
"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 detainees.
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."
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 program.
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 investigators.
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.