CIA torture in 'black sites'
“I know torture’s a dirty word,” defense attorney Walter Ruiz told the tribunal. “I’ll tell you what, judge, I’m not going to sanitize this for their concerns.” Ruiz repeatedly used the word “torture” — and gave vivid descriptions of what had been done to his client, Mustafa Hawsawi, in secret CIA-run black-site prisons.
James Mitchell looked almost wistful as he described the various ways he had tortured some of the men sitting across from him. In front of a packed courtroom at the Guantánamo detention facility, Mitchell recalled waterboarding 9/11 defendant Khalid Sheikh Mohammed dozens of times, and “walling” detainees by slamming them repeatedly into a wall. He described subjecting detainees to days of standing sleep deprivation, slapping, screaming and cursing at them; and threatening to slit the throat of one defendant’s son.
According to Amnesty International, this gruesome testimony was part of the evidence given by Mitchell at pre-trial hearings for five men due to go on trial in over the 9/11 attacks. All five defendants - Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Ramzi bin al-Shaibh, Walid bin Attash, Ammar al-Baluchi and Mustafa al-Hawsawi – could face the death penalty if they are found guilty by Guantánamo’s military commissions. Lawyers for the defendants want any statements extracted under torture excluded, including those taken by the FBI after the men arrived at Guantánamo. They argue that the FBI cooperated in CIA interrogations and any statements to its agents are tainted by torture.
James Elmer Mitchell (born 1952) is an American psychologist and former member of the United States Air Force. From 2002, after his retirement from the military, to 2009 his company Mitchell Jessen and Associates received $81 million on contract from the CIA to carry out debriefings of detainees and to develop and conduct so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques", which are widely considered to be torture. After the September 11 attacks, Mitchell was asked by the CIA to develop an interrogation program based on what were believed to be al-Qaeda documents on resisting interrogation. Mitchell and Jessen recommended use of SERE counter-interrogation training, reverse-engineered to obtain intelligence from captives. In April 2009, the CIA canceled the contract with Mitchell and Jessen's company, after having paid $81 million out of the authorized $180 million. On December 9, 2014 the United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released a report confirming the use of torture and SERE tactics in interrogations. The CIA acting general counsel, described in his book Company Man, that the enhanced techniques were sadistic and terrifying.
When contacted about his role in the controversial program in the aftermath of its publishing, he confirmed that he signed a non-disclosure agreement with the government, not enabling him to confirm or deny his involvement. In 2010, psychologist Jim L. H. Cox filed a formal ethics complaint against Mitchell in Texas, where Mitchell was a licensed psychologist, alleging that he had violated the profession's rules of practice by helping the CIA develop "enhanced interrogation [i.e., torture] techniques." In 2014, The New York Times editorial board called for the investigation and prosecution of Mitchell and Jessen for their role in developing the torture practices used by the CIA. In 2015, Human Rights Watch called for the prosecution of Jessen "for [his] alleged direct participation in torture, often applied in ways beyond how it was authorized, but also for [his] role in the initial conspiracy to torture as well." On October 13, 2015 the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen on behalf of Mohamed Ahmed Ben Soud, Suleiman Abdullah Salim, and the estate of Gul Rahman, three former detainees who were subjected to the interrogation methods they designed. Mitchell was finally called upon to testify in January, 2020. During his testimony Mitchell portrayed himself as less radical than CIA officials, like Charlie Wise, then the CIA's director of interrogations.
Due to reports and news, Mitchell and his business partner, John “Bruce” Jessen had a leading role in designing and implementing the notorious “enhanced interrogation techniques” that were used to torture men in black sites around the globe. No one responsible for the US torture programme has been held to account. Al-Nashiri was subjected to mock execution and had a gun held to his head; interrogators threatened to sexually assault his mother. James Mitchell would say that those “techniques” exceeded what was “authorized” in legal memos drummed up by the White House Office of Legal Counsel to justify the unjustifiable. But it is evident from the range of sadistic behaviors revealed in a 2014 Senate report that the “authorized” enhanced interrogation techniques often served to embolden interrogators – and gave them the momentum and cover to inflict ever more vicious abuse on some detainees.
Almost everyone else involved in the extensive programme, involving a network of black sites around the world, has remained in the shadows. In terms of legality, it is still the dark side of the moon. Amnesty International believes that the US did not act alone. At least three EU member states hosted secret CIA sites as part of the global “war on terror”. The men in the Guantánamo courtroom had been tortured and ill-treated in Poland, Lithuania and Romania. But the complicity of these countries in torture, a crime under international law, was not mentioned once in the courtroom. Everyone in the courtroom was forbidden from saying or indicating that European countries hosted black sites and facilitated the abuse that went on in them. No individual in any of these countries has been charged for facilitating these crimes.
The European Court of Human Rights has already ruled in a civil case against Poland for complicity in the enforced disappearance and torture of CIA detainees Mohammed al-Nashiri and Abu Zubaydah, both of whom are still in Guantánamo. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Walid bin Attash and Ramzi bin al-Shaibh were also held in the Polish black site, located in Stare Kiejkuty, which operated between 2002 and 2004. The ECHR has also ruled against Lithuania for its willing facilitation of the disappearance and torture of Abu Zubaydah in the secret CIA prison it hosted. This year, Mustafal-Hawsawi’s civil case against Lithuania will also be heard by the ECHR.
Amnesty has repeatedly said that detainees at Guantánamo should be given fair trials in US federal courts or released – Guantánamo’s military tribunals do not meet international fair trial standards. But this renewed spotlight on Guantánamo is also an opportunity to hold to account the US’s European friends which hosted key black sites, helped to “disappear” detainees, and facilitated torture and ill-treatment. The fact that they watch the proceedings at Guantánamo from afar – unscathed and unaccountable – is also an outrage.