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Psychologists Who Helped Develop CIA Torture Program To Testify In Sept. 11 Case


At the U.S. military court in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, two weeks of important testimony start tomorrow in the government's case against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other men charged in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Two American psychologists will be on the witness stand. Their firm was paid $80 million by the CIA to develop its torture program. This is the first time they'll testify publicly under oath. And Sacha Pfeiffer of NPR's investigations team will be there listening. Hey, Sacha.


KING: So first, we should say that the actual 9/11 trial has not started yet, right?

PFEIFFER: Yes. The 9/11 trial is not scheduled to start until January 2021. But over the next two weeks, there's a pretrial hearing where lawyers will be hashing out legal issues that have to be resolved before a trial could begin.

KING: OK. So tell me more about the two psychologists who are going to be testifying.

PFEIFFER: Their names are Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell. They're Air Force retirees. They had a company that got a contract from the U.S. government to design and implement what the CIA called enhanced interrogation techniques. And those techniques were used in the CIA's secret overseas prisons called black sites.

KING: And by now, we all know that enhanced interrogation techniques is a euphemism for torture, like waterboarding.

PFEIFFER: Yes. In fact, Mitchell and Jessen personally waterboarded some of the prisoners now at Guantanamo. They took a military program that trains people to cope with torture and resist interrogation if they're captured, and they flipped it around. So instead, the CIA used those methods against prisoners to get them to answer questions - methods like sleep deprivation, isolation, stress positions, slapping.

KING: So what are these two men expected to say, exactly?

PFEIFFER: It's hard to predict because the government censors a lot of what happens at Guantanamo. Now, Jim Mitchell has written a book and done interviews. And he and Jessen gave depositions as part of a lawsuit against them by some former CIA prisoners. And in them, Mitchell and Jessen describe themselves as American patriots who were trying to keep the country safe. They say other people used their techniques incorrectly. And now they are the fall guys getting all the blame.

KING: Now, part of those depositions were taped, right?

PFEIFFER: Correct. They were videotaped. And The New York Times got them and posted excerpts online. And at one point in Mitchell's video, he downplays the torture. Here he is talking about walling where you put a collar around someone's neck and slam them against a wall.


JAMES MITCHELL: Oh, it is discombobulating. It's not painful. It stirs up your inner ears. And it's like being on one of those whirligigs or something. You know, you move around quite a bit.

PFEIFFER: At another point, Bruce Jessen talks about preventing prisoners from sleeping by hanging them from a ceiling by handcuffs. And he says they're monitored to make sure they don't get edema if they hang on the cuffs too much - edema meaning when fluid collects in body tissue and there's swelling.

KING: So it's like he's saying, yes, we tortured people. But also, while we were torturing them, we were taking care of them.

PFEIFFER: Basically, yes. But both of them acknowledged that some interrogations got out of control. And they both said that they didn't want to continue some of what they were doing, but they were pressured to keep going. Here's Jessen speaking to that.


BRUCE JESSEN: They kept telling me every day a nuclear bomb was going to be exploded in the United States and that because I told them to stop, I lost my nerve. And it was going to be my fault if I didn't continue.

KING: So he's saying he thought the country's security was at stake, and so torturing people was justified.

PFEIFFER: Basically, yes. I mean, I think he probably wouldn't call it torture. He would call it extreme pressure. And as a result, one of the legal issues that has to be resolved before a 9/11 trial could happen is that any statements the CIA got from the 9/11 defendants now cannot be used at trial.

So the FBI got new statements from them without using torture. But the defense attorneys for the prisoners say the FBI and CIA were closely intertwined. And once you torture someone, you can't expect what they tell you to be reliable.

KING: So what happens if a judge goes ahead and decides that what the prisoners told the FBI cannot be admitted at the trial?

PFEIFFER: That means the government would lose its most critical evidence. And that would make it harder to successfully prosecute the 9/11 defendants.

KING: Sacha Pfeiffer of NPR's investigations team. Thanks, Sacha.

PFEIFFER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: January 20, 2020 at 9:00 PM PST
A previous version of the headline and Web summary said that pretrial hearings and testimony would begin Tuesday at the U.S. military court in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. In fact, those have been ongoing, and it's the testimony of two psychologists that is planned starting Tuesday.
Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.