In this interesting if highly disturbing read, James E. Mitchell, one of the chief architects of the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” program and introducer of waterboarding to the program, gives his side of the story and describes the techniques used, the interrogations conducted, and the intelligence gathered as a result.
Mitchell brings up a number of issues that warrant serious consideration. It is true that there are bad people out there in the world actively planning to do bad things, and they’re not going to stop or reveal their plans just because their enemies ask them nicely. It is true that torture, like terrorism, does sometime achieve its aims, especially in the short term. And it may very well be true that a carefully organized and controlled program of coercion is better than a bunch of haphazard violence–certainly Eric Fair’s account of how a bunch of untrained interrogators, under intense pressure from above, totally went off the rails at Abu Ghraib and other sites in Iraq and committed a number of unacceptable atrocities, not because they were intentionally evil, but because they didn’t know what else to do, should be a warning to us all. On the other hand, Mitchell’s accounts of the calm deliberations that he and others went through over exactly what techniques were and were not legal are perhaps even more chilling, and certainly provoked my gag reflex more than stories of almost any amount of casual beatings.
Furthermore, Mitchell’s account has only strengthened my own personal belief that waterboarding is unacceptable, although I frankly confess that I can’t 100% promise that I myself wouldn’t do that or something equally bad under the right circumstances. Still, waterboarding is unequivocally, undeniably torture, as Christopher Hitchens recounted after experiencing it first-hand. Mitchell argues that America must take decisive steps to protect itself against the terrorists who seek to destroy it, and even includes as further justification some conversations he had with his interrogation subjects, who (he says) did not hold the waterboarding and other techniques (e.g., “walling”–throwing the detainee repeatedly against a special flexible wall) he used on them against him, but instead told him that it enabled them to confess without sinning against Allah, since Allah sees into each person’s heart and knows just how much they can bear.
In fact, there are a number of ironic or even creepy parallels in the book between Mitchell and the people he interrogates, although Mitchell himself seems to be largely unaware of them. Indeed, it must be said that while the book is competently written, it is probably not a great work of nonfiction–Mitchell seems to lack the kind of introspection that elevates the simple memoir or autobiography into art. But going back to the parallels, Mitchell admits that the interrogators and their subjects often developed a strange kind of rapport, and they would often spend a fair amount of time hanging out with them and keeping their spirits up, as well as defending them against what they considered predatory or abusive behavior from higher-ups. Mitchell himself, he claims in the book, eventually refused to carry out more waterboarding and spoke up against other behaviors he considered inappropriate or abusive, which led–oh irony!–to accusations that he was a “bleeding-heart liberal *****”. And then, once the hearings and accusations began, Mitchell found himself–oh double irony!–afraid that his words would be used against him or that he might make an innocent mistake of memory and be accused of deliberately lying, as he was subjected to “interrogation” after “interrogation” by the media and Senate Democrats. The book ends with his account of the Senate hearings on the subject and his statement that KSM (one of the detainees he subjected to “EITs”) was right, thus, bizarrely, putting Mitchell on the same team, in a weird way, with some of the Al-Qaeda masterminds of 9/11 against Senate Democrats and the Obama administration.
I can’t support what Mitchell and the CIA did, or agree with everything he says, but I do think that this is nonetheless an important book and an important perspective to keep in mind, both because it is true that the world is not just rainbows and unicorns and sometimes dirty work has to be done, and because Mitchell is hardly the only one who believed and continues to believe that the CIA acted rightly and waterboarding and other EITs were justified and necessary. This is something that must be grappled with, even if it is unpleasant.