A retired Air Force psychologist, who has been alleged in press reports for nearly a decade to be an architect of the Central Intelligence Agency’s torture program, gave a first-ever on-camera interview to Vice News in the wake of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s damning report on the so-called enhanced interrogation program.
Vice News spoke with Dr. James Mitchell in his element, paddling in the marshlands of Florida, over drinks at his local watering hole, and at his home in Tampa. He and interviewer Kaj Larsen covered the utility of the agency’s harsh tactics, his relationship with and understanding of radical Islam, and his own reflections on more than a decade at war with terror.
Throughout the 25-minute interview, Mitchell is evasive about his role in the CIA’s program, which has been reported in publications like the New Yorker. “I’d really like to respond to those questions, but I can’t,” he says at one point, citing a non-disclosure agreement. When answering another question, he prefaces his answer with: “I’m not trying to imply it was me.
But Mitchell is largely responsive to Larsen’s questions, and perhaps the most striking moment is when he reacts to the intelligence committee’s findings that torture had not yielded actionable intelligence. It wasn’t supposed to, he says. It was supposed to make detainees more responsive to other questioning.
“It’s almost like a good cop, bad cop kind of set-up,” he says, “with a really bad cop.”
The point, he says, “was to facilitate getting actionable intelligence by making a bad cop that was bad enough that the person would engage with the good cop,” Mitchell continues. “I would be stunned if they found any kind of evidence that EITs, as they were being applied, yielded actionable intelligence.”
Larsen also pieces through Mitchell’s personal library with him, which is stacked with the Koran and other Islamic books. At one point, they flip through a book of Sharia law. Mitchell explains that the general public misunderstands the mindset of Islamic terrorists.
“We tend to think of them as suicidal fanatics,” he says. “It’s less like becoming a suicidal fanatic and more like becoming a Jedi warrior.”
He also waffles when asked if waterboarding specifically is torture.
“I don’t think it’s the right thing to do. I don’t think it’s the wrong thing to do,” he says. “It’s like every tool in the tool bag. You can underuse it. You can overuse it.”
Though, later, he adds: “I don’t think you should do anything that violates the torture convention.”
Mitchell is largely dispassionate when describing the interrogation program, his role and the public debate. But the one time when he shows emotion is when he recalls how he got involved in the first place. He remembers how he felt on 9/11 and knowing that he wanted to do something to help.
“When somebody asked me if I’d be willing to help,” he says, after pausing more than once to fight back tears, “I was willing to help.”