The Torturers Wanted to Stop, but the CIA Kept Going

An interrogator testified that even after prisoner Abu Zubaydah started cooperating, the waterboarding continued.

The U.S. flag at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba
Michelle Shephard / Reuters

A psychologist who helped the CIA torture people told a chilling story this week at the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba, where legal cases are proceeding against five defendants accused of murdering almost 3,000 people on September 11, 2001. James Mitchell, one of the architects and practitioners of waterboarding, still defends the interrogation method, which involves strapping human beings to a gurney, covering their nose and mouth with a rag, and forcing water into their nasal cavity and lungs as they squirm. The technique is intended to break people by subjecting them to the primal terror of drowning.

Prisoner Abu Zubaydah was terrorized that way 83 times at a black site in Thailand. According to the Senate torture report, he was “completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth.” That report also noted that “non-stop use of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques was disturbing to CIA personnel at Detention Site Green,” and that they objected, but were “instructed by CIA headquarters to continue using the techniques.” It added that the techniques continued for “more than two weeks” after CIA personnel on-site questioned the legality of what they were doing.

How does Mitchell remember those events? In testimony at Guantánamo yesterday, he said the CIA demanded that he and Bruce Jessen, another psychologist, keep using the torture techniques that they had helped to develop. The Los Angeles Times recounted:

After Abu Zubaydah started cooperating with interrogators at a secret prison in Thailand in 2002, Mitchell and Jessen sought to stop using the waterboard. Officers at CIA headquarters in Virginia accused the two of having lost their nerve. “They said that we were pussies, that we had lost our spine,” Mitchell testified. The CIA officers said that if another attack by Al Qaeda occurred, Mitchell and Jessen “would have the blood of dead Americans on their hands.” Mitchell told the officers he would continue only if they came and witnessed application of the waterboard, to “bring their rubber boots and come on down.”

Which they did. They assembled in Abu Zubaydah’s cell, which Mitchell described as small with an unpleasant, musky odor. The psychologists performed what Mitchell said was a dialed-back version of the technique. “I don’t want to use the word ‘perfunctory’ for something that horrible, but, yeah,” he said. It didn’t seem perfunctory to the visitors, many of whom began to cry. “Their decision after witnessing this is that we don’t need to do this,” he said.

In this account, a prisoner was cooperating with interrogators, yet CIA officers at headquarters still ordered the psychologists who designed America’s torture program to keep terrorizing him by filling his lungs with water. The psychologists refused to needlessly terrorize another human being—unless the people at CIA headquarters who called them spineless pussies came to watch.

Then the CIA folks came, and the psychologists terrorized the prisoner as a demonstration, knowing it was wrong. And it was so brutal that multiple CIA observers cried. That’s according to Mitchell, one of the torture program’s staunchest defenders!

Because the CIA is cloaked in so much secrecy, Americans don’t even know if the people at headquarters who demanded that the torture continue still work for the spy agency. Their actions are a moral stain on the nation, as is the failure to hold them accountable.