James Mitchell had a successful 22-year career in the U.S. Air Force — most notably as a top trainer at the Air Force’s survival school — before retiring as a lieutenant colonel.
And while he earned some awards and accolades for his service as a SERE leader, it was what he did as a contractor for the CIA after his retirement that truly marks his career.
See, Mitchell is the man who broke al Qaeda mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (often called “KSM”) and other high-ranking members of the terrorist group in the months and years after 9/11.
After the release of his new book about the interrogation program titled “Enhanced Interrogation: Inside the Minds and Motives of the Islamic Terrorists Trying To Destroy America,” Mitchell sat down for an interview with Marc Theissen, a Washington Post columnist and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
During the 90-minute discussion, Mitchell both clarified details about the controversial “enhanced interrogation techniques” he used and provided insights into the minds of the terrorists.
First, Mitchell explained the difference between interrogation and what he describes as “how do you do” visits.
“These enhanced interrogations that I was part of really only dealt with about 14 of the top folks. I didn’t have anything to do with the mid-level or low-level folks at all,” Mitchell, who’s a licensed psychologist, said. “And most of these interrogations took place over a period of time of about two weeks. KSM’s took about three weeks. And then after that, there was no enhanced interrogations for KSM — you know, none at all.”
He later added, “[O]ur goal in doing enhanced interrogations was to get them to make some movement, to be willing to engage in the questions instead of rocking and chanting and doing the other sorts of things that they had previously been doing.”
Once they broke, it was all about “cigarettes and beer,” to borrow a quote from Defense Secretary nominee James Mattis.
“We switched to social influence stuff because we know that the real way that you get the cooperation that you want is not by trying to coerce it out of them,” Mitchell said. “It’s by getting them to provide the information in a way that they don’t feel particularly pressured to do it.”
Mitchell made it clear that after the terrorists broke, the nature of his visits were more along the lines of maintenance. During one of those visits, he described how the mastermind of 9/11 revealed that he had personally beheaded Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.
“He describes cutting his head off and dismembering him and burying him in a hole. And [we] asked him, was that difficult for you to do, thinking emotionally this had to be hard to do,” Mitchell said. “And he said, ‘Oh, no. I had sharp knives. The toughest part was getting through the neck bone’ — just like that.”
Mitchell also described KSM’s shock at George W. Bush’s response to the 9/11 attacks, revealing that the terror leader thought the U.S. would treat the attack as a law enforcement problem and not go to war over it.
“And then he looks down and he goes, ‘How was I to know that cowboy George Bush would say he wanted us dead or alive and invade Afghanistan to get us?’ And he said it just about like that, like he was befuddled, like he couldn’t imagine it,” Mitchell said.
And Mitchell firmly denies that his EITs were torture.
“If it was torture, they wouldn’t have to pass a law in 2015 outlawing it because torture is already illegal, right?” Mitchell said. “The highest Justice Department in the land wouldn’t have opined five times that it wasn’t torture — one time after I personally waterboarded an assistant attorney general before he made that decision three or four days later, right?”
Mitchell’s book, “Enhanced Interrogation: Inside the Minds and Motives of the Islamic Terrorists Trying To Destroy America,” is published by Crown Forum and is available at Amazon.com.