By Russ Read
Waterboarding may be a harsh interrogation method, but it is not torture and it does work in rare occasions, according to a former Central Intelligence Agency interrogator.
James Mitchell was contracted by the CIA in 2002 to develop so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” to be used on captured terrorists, which included waterboarding. The technique is the subject of controversy to this day, with several high-ranking officials coming out against it since it was first implemented, including the future Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Chairman of the Senate Committee on Armed Services Sen. John McCain.
“It is understandable that Gen. Mattis would say he never found waterboarding useful, because no one in the military has been authorized to waterboard a detainee,” wrote Mitchell in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal Friday. “Thousands of U.S. military personnel have been waterboarded as part of their training, though the services eventually abandoned the practice after finding it too effective in getting even the most hardened warrior to reveal critical information.”
Mattis reportedly once said “a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers” would be more effective than waterboarding, but such techniques are not effective in cases where time is of the essence.
“We started out with the ‘tea and sympathy’ approach and only escalated to harsher methods when it became clear that the detainee held vital information that might save innocent lives and was determined not to provide it,” wrote Mitchell. “We quickly moved away from enhanced interrogations as soon as the detainee showed even a little cooperation.”
The interrogation of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the “mastermind” of the September 11, 2001 attacks, is the case study for both advocates and opponents of waterboarding. Mitchell and Jose Rodriguez, the former head of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service, argue that “KSM” would have never broken without enhanced interrogation.
“In our case, it is not as if we had unlimited time to see if we could buddy up to terrorists to find out if another attack was on the horizon,” said Mitchell. “For example, not long after 9/11 the CIA was told of an al-Qaeda effort to obtain nuclear fissionable material. When KSM was captured in 2003, we asked whether another major attack was in the works, and he responded, ‘soon you will know.’ We didn’t have time to dither.”
Mitchell personally waterboarded KSM, and endured the technique himself. Mattis, nor anyone else in the military, was authorized to engage in the tactic.
Rodriguez also defended the KSM interrogation in his book, “Hard Measures.”
“We couldn’t sit idly by and wait for a chance to bond with our detainee or for him to see the error of his ways and open up to us,” wrote Rodriguez.
Waterboarding and other enhanced interrogations were never the first option for most detainees, nor were they frequently employed, contrary to what critics may claim. Mitchell himself only waterboarded three terrorists. As he noted, those who underwent waterboarding “were not run-of-the-mill battlefield detainees, but hardened terrorists.”
KSM was reported to have been waterboarded 183 times. Many media outlets portrayed this to mean he went through 183 separate waterboarding sessions, in reality, the number corresponds to the amount of times the water was poured on the terrorist mastermind.
Mitchell, Rodriguez and the CIA as a whole were “thrown under the bus” by the Obama administration. A report by the Senate Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence published in 2014 harshly criticized the CIA, claiming that enhanced interrogation techniques did not work. Mitchell claimed the investigators never spoke to anyone involved in the enhanced interrogation program and was highly partisan. It cost the American taxpayers $40 million over five years to complete.
Ali Soufan, a former FBI investigator and critic of enhanced interrogation, claimed in 2012 that techniques like waterboarding not only elicit false leads, but also make it difficult to recruit intelligence assets.
Rodriguez and Mitchell disagree.
Rodriguez claimed in 2012 that notorious terrorist Abu Zubaydah provided a key “road map” after he was waterboarded, which allowed intelligence officials to capture senior al-Qaida leaders.
The National Defense Authorization Act of 2016 made enhanced interrogation techniques illegal, but Mitchell argued in his piece that maintaining the perception of the “moral high ground” should not put national security at risk.
“Overemphasize political correctness, and we will be standing on the moral high ground, looking down into a smoking hole that used to be several city blocks.”