Protesters wear orange suits and black cloth over their heads with an upside down US flag behind them

Activists wearing prison jumpsuits and black hoods participate in a demonstration against the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, opened 18 years ago, and calling for its closure and "accountability for torture," near the White House, in Washington, DC, Jan. 11, 2020. 


Mike Theiler/Reuters

A psychologist named James Mitchell walked into a military courtroom in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, today. On the other side of the room sat Khalid Sheikh Mohammed or KSM, the self-declared mastermind behind the 9/11 plot. 

Related: Remembering how America experienced 9/11

It is a bizarre reunion for Mitchell and KSM. They'd first met in a secret, overseas CIA prison in 2003, where Mitchell was part of a team that tortured KSM, including waterboarding him more than 180 times. Now, Mitchell is having to testify about his work at Guantánamo Bay. 

James Mitchell authored the book, "Enhanced Interrogations: Inside the Minds and Motives of the Islamic Terrorists Trying To Destroy," which details the various forms of torture used on terrorism suspects. 

The United States decided in 2002 to send foreign terrorism suspects to Guantánamo Bay detention camp. In 2018, US President Donald Trump ordered the center to remain open after his predecessor, Barack Obama, unsuccessfully attempted to close the widely condemned prison, where 40 prisoners remain as of May 2018. 

Julia Hall, a human rights attorney with Amnesty International, was in the courtroom in Guantánamo Bay on Tuesday and spoke with The World's host Maco Werman about what she observed. 

Marco Werman: Julia, describe the scene in the courtroom.

Julia Hall: Well, Mr. Mitchell was what we would call, in an ordinary criminal court, a hostile witness. And he actually said — right to J. Connell, the defense lawyer — he said, "I came down here for the families and for the victims. You people have been saying malicious things about me for years." 

Related: An American who interrogated al-Qaeda suspects says it's about talk — not torture 

So, listeners may recall that James Mitchell, the psychologist, is testifying at Gitmo today, along with his partner, Dr. Bruce Jessen. They devised the CIA's now-outlawed torture program and netted $80 million for their work and in some cases administered torture themselves at black sites overseas. Was Mitchell asked specifically about torture today?

Not yet, but he will be. What he was asked today was about his book called "Enhanced Interrogation," which really, from a human rights lawyer's point of view, is an admission that they developed the program. The program included waterboarding, confinement in small boxes and walling, which is a form of feeding. And those are all torture techniques. Dr. Mitchell has never testified in open court before. This is the first time that is happening down here at Guantánamo.

There was a civil suit in the United States where two of the persons who were subject to enhanced interrogation techniques — and a man by the name of Gul Rahman who actually died in Guantánamo Bay — brought a suit against the psychologists. Now, that case, which was again, a civil suit, that was settled. Obviously, the terms of the settlement are secret.

But what was released was the notion that Mr. Rahman, who died in Guantánamo Bay, while they were sorry that he died, they had nothing to do with his death. This is what they said. And that they were sorry that anyone might have been hurt. But it was never their intention. Right? So, that process never really resulted in accountability for the two psychologists. And so their being down here is the first time that we're actually getting them in an adversarial proceeding.

Related: 5 things to know about Guantanamo Bay on its 115th birthday  

So, in 2017, Mitchell and his partner, Jessen, gave depositions in response to that lawsuit against them. The ACLU, which brought the lawsuit, posted portions of the deposition online. And I'd like us to hear an excerpt where first Mitchell and then Jessen argue that their superiors pressured them to continue the torture program even when they had doubts.

James Mitchell: Bruce and I had said we're not going to continue doing this. And what they said was, well, you guys have lost your spine.

Bruce Jessen: They kept telling me every day a nuclear bomb was gonna be exploded in the United States. And that because I told him to stop, I lost my nerve. And it was [going to] be my fault if I didn't continue.

James Mitchell: I think the word that was actually used is that you guys are [bleep] — there's gonna be another attack in America and the blood of dead civilians is [going to] be on your hands. If you won't follow through with this, then we're [going to] send somebody out there who will.

Julia, I know you said today was largely procedural, but did the court hear whether Mitchell or Jessen had any misgivings about the use of what has euphemistically come to be called enhanced interrogation?

Not at all. At one point, Dr. Mitchell said that he was very happy with the role he played in the program. So, we heard no contrition today. Not clear whether we'll hear any in the coming days. But certainly, today was a very adversarial approach to the defense counsel.

So, just to clarify, Julia, what you're attending this week is not the 9/11 trial that's slated for next year, right?

These are the hearings that kind of set the scene and make sure that all of the discovery and all of the testimony is taken in advance of the trial. Now, that trial is supposed to start in January 2021, but just being down here for the last few days, it is abundantly clear to me and to many others that that timeline is really tight and there may be a need to extend beyond 2021. So, that's eight years to date that we still don't have a trial. And even having set the date for 2021, it really doesn't look very promising that it's going to start then.


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