Psychologist Linked to CIA Interrogations Kayaking in Retirement

James Mitchell, a psychologist who allegedly co-founded a company the CIA paid to run its terror interrogation program, is retired in Florida and spends his free time kayaking, rafting and climbing. And finding his life a little surreal.

The 63-year-old, whose name was first linked by media reports in 2009 to the CIA program, said he can’t confirm or deny whether he had anything to do with the controversial program because of a non-disclosure agreement he signed with the government. U.S. officials, who declined to be named and were familiar with a report released yesterday by Senate Democrats, said Mitchell was involved in interrogating some of the CIA’s most significant detainees, including 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

“I’m in a box -- I’m caught in some Kafka novel,” he said in a telephone interview from his home in Land O’ Lakes, Florida. “Everyone is assuming it is me, but I can’t confirm or deny it. It is frustrating because you can’t defend yourself.”

Mitchell said he retired as a psychologist in 2011, and is no longer licensed to practice in any state. After his name was first mentioned in media reports in connection with the CIA program, he said, he received death threats.

The report, issued by Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the interrogation program kept suspects in cold cells, doused them with refrigerated water and force-fed some rectally. At least one detainee died of hypothermia while shackled to a concrete floor, the report said, while another tried to chew his arm. One was held for 17 days without any light, and others hallucinated and suffered from paranoia and exhibited signs of psychosis, according to the report. The report uses pseudonyms for the psychologists involved, and doesn’t specifically name Mitchell.

‘Cherry Picking’

The techniques used by the CIA were largely ineffective at providing useful information and sometimes weren’t reviewed by the Justice Department, the report said.

A 2009 article by The New York Times said Mitchell and his partner in the company were the architects of the CIA program. The paper said Mitchell was directly involved in giving interrogation orders, including one instance in which Mitchell ordered that Abu Zubaydah, who was described as a top Al Qaeda operative, be stripped, exposed to cold and blasted with rock music to prevent sleep when he was held in a Thailand jail. In The Times story, Mitchell said he couldn’t comment on the allegations citing his nondisclosure agreement.

Mitchell, who said he spent 20 years in the U.S. Air Force, said the CIA interrogation program needs to be regarded in the context of the time after Sept. 11, when intelligence agencies believed another attack was imminent and were in a race against time to prevent any more deaths.

The Senate report “cherry picks things” and takes others out of context, he said, declining to provide details.

“It looks like what they did was get some facts wrong,” he said. “It is easy looking back in hindsight and say you could have done it better.”

‘Ethical Principles’

Saying he was speaking as a psychologist trained in interrogation techniques but denying any direct knowledge of the CIA program, Mitchell said he would support “anything legal and that doesn’t produce lasting harm.” He said anyone who engaged in sexually abusing or killing a prisoner should be in jail.

His partner in Mitchell Jessen & Associates was Bruce Jessen, who was also involved in the CIA interrogations according to the officials familiar with the report. The Senate report didn’t name the firm or Jessen. Jessen didn’t respond to a message left at a number listed in that name in Spokane, Washington, which is where the U.S. officials said the company that worked for the CIA and was paid $81 million was based.

In 2010, after the Times story ran, a psychologist filed a complaint against Mitchell with the Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists, citing his alleged involvement in the interrogations and saying Mitchell was guilty of ethical violations. The American Psychological Association wrote to Texas officials and said Mitchell’s alleged behavior had harmed the “the public’s understanding of the profession of psychology and its ethical principles.”

Counter-Terrorism Unit

After a closed-door hearing in 2011, The Texas board dismissed the complaint, saying there wasn’t enough evidence to prove Mitchell violated its rules, according to the Associated Press. Mitchell said the complaint was full of inaccuracies and pleaded his case to the state board. That same year, Mitchell said he gave up his license with the state. He said he had been planning to retire anyway.

The Senate report said the two psychologists -- whom it didn’t name -- running the CIA program had no prior experience as interrogators or background in counter terrorism.

Mitchell said he worked in a counter-terrorism unit while he was in the Air Force, and decided to get his PhD in psychology “to understand the psychology of people who build bombs.” He became particularly interested in studying the “militant form of Islam” after a friend of his was captured and killed in 1995 by an Islamic militant organization, he said.

“The people who think the men and woman in the CIA are doing the heavy lifting for them so they can sleep safe at night, those people I get a lot of positive comments from,” Mitchell said. “Then there are the people who think it would be better that 3,000 people die than that KSM get slapped,” referring to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, “and they don’t care because it isn’t going to be them who is dying. They just don’t care.”

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