No Comment — July 20, 2009, 1:01 pm

Meet the Torturers

Joby Warrick and Peter Finn of the Washington Post recount in detail the internal discussions surrounding the torture of Abu Zubaida, a suspected terrorist held at a CIA black site in Thailand and interrogated using techniques that included waterboarding.

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.”

One of the most striking things about this report is the extent to which the entire torture process was driven by healthcare professionals. The account makes clear that contract psychologists Mitchell, his partner John “Bruce” Jessen, and CIA psychologist R. Scott Schumate played a vital role in the entire process. It also makes clear that, contrary to the official Bush White House account, under which they were responding to pleas from the ground to “take the gloves off,” in fact the stuggle was consistently between handlers who wanted to stop or limit the rough stuff, and unidentified people in the pinnacles of power in Washington whose appetite for brutality could apparently never be sated. Who was calling the shots? The story tells us that the approvals came from “downtown,” agency jargon for the White House. And there’s another giveaway:

“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.’ “

And who was talking to “headquarters” and pressing them? If you’ve read Jack Goldsmith’s book The Terror Presidency, this cajoling and threatening will sound familiar. In his book, the man consistently on the delivering end was David Addington.

Eric Holder may want an inquiry which looks only at what happened in the room in which Abu Zubaida and prisoners like him were held, but this account demonstrates yet again the extent to which the pressure for the use of the most abusive practices came from the highest decision makers. If an investigation is launched and it fails to examine closely the role played by policy-makers and their “the law is no object” rogue lawyers, it will be a travesty.

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More from Scott Horton:

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

No Comment, Six Questions June 4, 2014, 8:00 am

Uncovering the Cover Ups: Death Camp in Delta

Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp

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