Guantanamo Torturer, “Just Following Orders Procedures”

Just in time for the Christian observance of Good Friday, because Pontius Pilate was another government contractor who caught undeserved flack for dutifully handling terrorist suspects according to procedure. From the Guardian article:

Dr James Elmer Mitchell has been called a war criminal and a torturer. He has been the subject of an ethics complaint, and his methods have been criticized in reports by two congressional committees and by the CIA’s internal watchdog.

But the retired air force psychologist insists he is not the monster many have portrayed him to be.

“The narrative that’s out there is, I walked up to the gate of the CIA, knocked on the door and said: ‘Let me in, I want to torture people, and I can show you how to do it.’ Or someone put out an ad on Craigslist that said, ‘Wanted: psychologist who is willing to design torture program.’ It’s a lot more complicated than that,” Mitchell told the Guardian in his first public comments since he was linked to the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program seven years ago.

“I’m just a guy who got asked to do something for his country by people at the highest level of government, and I did the best that I could.”

Mitchell is featured prominently in a new report prepared by the Senate select committee on intelligence, which spent five years and more than $40m studying the CIA’s detention and interrogation program.

The findings, according to a summary leaked to McClatchy, are damning: that the agency misled the White House, Congress and the American people; that unauthorised interrogation methods were used; that the legal opinions stating the techniques did not break US torture laws were flawed; and perhaps most significant, that the torture yielded no useful intelligence.

But Mitchell said the program’s successes had been deliberately ignored…

Long before the Senate intelligence committee began its review, Mitchell was identified in a 2004 CIA inspector general’s report that examined the efficacy of the agency’s torture program. A heavily redacted copy of the IG report was released five years ago. It said Mitchell and Jessen had “probably misrepresented” their “expertise” as experienced interrogators when pitching coercive techniques to the CIA as a way to obtain actionable intelligence from prisoners…

Mitchell said his credentials are impeccable. He has spent his career studying the terrorist mindset first as a bomb disposal specialist, then as a hostage negotiator, a clinical psychologist and an instructor at the Air Force’s elite survival school…

Mitchell also noted that he’s a big supporter of Amnesty International and wanted to help the human rights organization raise money for child abuse by volunteering to sit in a dunk tank…

Read the whole thing; there’s a whole novel’s worth of human futility, self-aggrandization, finger-pointing and excuse-making packed into one short interview.

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48 replies
  1. 1
    Svensker says:

    “I’m just a guy who got asked to do something for his country by people at the highest level of government, and I did the best that I could.”

    Perhaps he should review the Nuremberg trials.

  2. 2
    Baud says:

    Mitchell also noted that he’s a big supporter of Amnesty International and wanted to help the human rights organization raise money for child abuse by volunteering to sit in a dunk tank…

    Dan Snyder is trying a similar stunt with his Original Americans project.

  3. 3
    Baud says:


    But this guy wasn’t even following orders. It’s not like he would have been legally punished if he said no.

  4. 4
    Cermet says:

    Sit in a dunk tank? Fuck, that animal needs to be water boarded over and over like he had victims done to. The very least turn over to the Hag and prosecuted as the war criminal that monster is along with bloody hands cheney – the worst war criminal we’d ever had.

  5. 5
    srv says:

    Everybody deserves their 15 minutes of torture.

  6. 6
    Mike in NC says:

    Huh, so Dubya didn’t pin a Presidential Medal of Freedom on this scumbag? The GOP House leadership will demand that be corrected!

  7. 7
    Svensker says:


    Good pernt.

  8. 8
    agorabum says:

    That guy is scum. The air force survival program (SERE) is designed to teach you what kinds of torture an airman might face if shot down behind enemy lines, and is based on a lot of the torture techniques inflicted in Korea and Vietnam. And the reason? Because when tortured you’ll end up saying anything to get the torture to stop (truth, lies, whatever), but just because you said something under torture, you are still an American and can return to the US with pride. Because a lot of POWs felt they betrayed America when they talked under torture.
    And this guy just imported the techniques of the North Koreans to the US. Good job, loser!

  9. 9
    Roger Moore says:


    Everybody deserves their 15 minutes of torture.

    And Mitchell deserves his more than most.

  10. 10
    Higgs Boson's Mate says:

    The military must have changed. When I served in the Navy from the late Sixties through the early Seventies we were told that it was our duty, both to the service and to the Constitution, to refuse to obey what we felt to be an illegal order. In light of that Dr James Elmer Mitchell seems to me to be nothing more than a self-justifying war criminal who had just enough education and intellect to do damage but, not enough to understand the consequences of his actions. He was easily bought and I hope that someday he’ll realize how low his price was.

  11. 11
    Steeplejack (phone) says:

    @Anne Laurie:

    Flak is criticism. A flack is a P.R. person.

  12. 12
    gratuitous says:

    Oh now, come on. Are you an attorney? Is Dr. Mitchell? How do you know what’s an allegedly “illegal” order? Besides, we had real attorneys at the highest levels who carefully reviewed what they were told, and they all concluded that these frat-boy pranks didn’t qualify as torture. Where would anyone get such an idea, anyway? Prolly the librul media, that’s where.

    It’s time we quit lookin’ backwards, put on our comfortable shoes, and marched resolutely into the future. And if there are any malcontent dead-enders who insist on holding a grudge over these little peccadilloes, there’s still a few cells open at Guantanamo. Or if someone decides to take more direct action, we’ll know they just hate us for our freedom.

  13. 13
    RepubAnon says:

    Mitchell also noted that he’s a big supporter of Amnesty International and wanted to help the human rights organization raise money for child abuse by volunteering to sit in a dunk tank

    “…raise money for child abuse?” Perhaps someone should tell Dr. Mitchell that Amnesty International will use the money in seeking to prevent child abuse.

    Seriously, though – as agorabum notes, the SERE program was designed to help captured US armed forces personnel resist the torture techniques used by the North Vietnamese and the North Koreans. These techniques typically extracted false (but politically convenient) confessions: “brainwashing.”

    And this was how the Bush Administration used these techniques: they extracted false confessions from the detainees of wildly improbable plots, then used these to panic and anger the population. The angry and panicked population then largely supported Iraq War 2.

    Dr. James Mitchell’s training and experience must have alerted him to the unreliability of information extracted under torture. (Think John McCain’s naming the offensive line of the Green Bay Packers as members of his squadron, and later making false confessions of war crimes to his North Vietnamese captors.) Dr. Mitchell knew he was committing war crimes, and that the methods he proposed were both evil and unreliable – but he advocated them anyway. After all, it’s OK if an American does it…

  14. 14
    dr. bloor says:

    Dr. Mitchell seems to have been under the impression that the DSM was a self-improvement manual, because he sure has internalized huge sections of it.

  15. 15
    Pogonip says:

    I loved America. Assholes like this guy killed it.

  16. 16
    scav says:

    Well hey, everyone else was telling me to throw people off bridges, what’s a psychologist with moral pretensions to do? They were wearing official badges and coats, of course I applied more electricity! I’m a highly qualified professional and know all the background literature by heart!

  17. 17
    Phoning It In says:

    <blockquote cite="He has spent his career studying the terrorist mindset first as a bomb disposal specialist, then as a hostage negotiator, a clinical psychologist and an instructor at the Air Force’s elite survival school"

    He has spent his career…figuring out how to take apart bombs, and has concluded that the human mind can be similarly decomposed, along the lines suggested by dr. bloor, via the human body, along the lines suggested by the Inquisition.

    If I want to return to the Renaissance, I’ll watch a movie, thanks.

  18. 18
    NotMax says:

    retired air force psychologist

    Ah, shazzbot. Would that my own blog’s host had not yet gone belly up (again), as had weeks’ worth of posts referring to and detailing the American Psychological Association’s moves to twist ethics into a pretzel over cases such as Mitchell’s.

    That said, the Wikipedia outline is dry but clear, though devoid of documenting the intensity and sturm und drang of the factional schism.

  19. 19
    LT says:

    You can look it up: a significant percentage of physicians in Nazi Germany were party members. There was no coercion involved- each joined of their own free will.

  20. 20
    different-church-lady says:

    Wow, I never thought I’d witness the day we had our own version of Josef Mengele.

  21. 21
    Higgs Boson's Mate says:


    How do you know what’s an allegedly “illegal” order?

    Are you replying to me? If so, we were told that we could refuse an order that would violate our consciences. We were also told that here would be severe consequences if we were found to have disobeyed a lawful order. The military, at that time anyway, provided its members with a clear path to escalate such things all the way to POTUS if necessary.

  22. 22
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    I’m reminded of the story of a lonely mid level bureaucrat in central Europe who was given the task of organizing the transfer of millions of people for “resettlement” in the East.

    That man’s name was Adolf Eichmann.

  23. 23
    LT says:

    @different-church-lady: That’s where your age is showing. Old timers well remember that in the times of LBJ and Nixon ( our own versions of the German High Command in WW2 were on full display. Patriots all.

  24. 24
    kathy a. says:

    He supports Amnesty International? After figuring out the best way to torture people, probably knowing that wasn’t a good way to get reliable information — since there has been scholarship on unreliable confessions for a good while now? What a gem.

  25. 25
    Steeplejack (tablet) says:

    @Higgs Boson’s Mate:

    I believe Gratuitous was snarkin’, the tell being the Palinesque dropped g.

  26. 26
    Stickler says:

    @Villago Delenda Est: Yeah, and he took pride in doing his job efficiently and well. Eichmann felt deeply misunderstood by the Israeli court.

  27. 27
    Higgs Boson's Mate says:

    @Steeplejack (tablet):

    My apologies. I become more than a bit nettled when someone in the military asserts that they did terrible things because their superiors told them to do so.

  28. 28
    Ken says:

    “I’m just a guy who got asked to do something for his country by people at the highest level of government, and I did the best that I could.”

    In the Saw movies, this is what he would see painted on the wall, just after he woke up and just before he realized what was strapped around his neck.

    Vengance fantasies aside, I would be kind of interested in the names of those people at the highest levels of government. So would several international courts, I imagine.

  29. 29
    Ruckus says:

    Dude was a Dr in the military?
    Doesn’t his Dr oath have the phrase “Do No Harm”?

    And @Higgs Boson’s Mate: got it right, we were told what illegal orders were, we were told how to deal with them, as well as what were legal orders, in case we might not like them and try to use the illegal order defense to not obey them.

  30. 30
    Bitter and Deluded Lurker says:

    @Steeplejack (phone): I looked in three dictionaries, and all three of them listed “flack” as an alternate spelling to “flak.” I think you’ve lost this war.

    Back on topic, I think agorabum has the best take on this. Let’s defend America by using the techniques our enemies use to get false confessions!

  31. 31
    Russ says:

    Nuremberg trials?
    That is so 40’s.
    Get with it, this is a new century.

  32. 32
    PurpleGirl says:

    @Cermet: the Hag

    You mean The Hague — that building and organization in the Netherlands (IIRC) that is dedicated to International law?

  33. 33
    Tommy says:

    It must have been 1975. One of my earliest and most vivid childhood memories. Dad was a professor at the Army War College. He told me we were going to go see a great American speak. His name was John McCain. He talked for almost two hours about what it was like to be tortured in detail a young kid should not have heard.

    Or maybe every kid should hear because there are few things in this world I find more repulsive then torture. The DOJ can write all the legal memos they want but I know torture when I see it and what we did was torture.

    That any man, much less a doctor would be involved makes me want to throw them in a jail cell for the rest of their lives.

  34. 34
    Higgs Boson's Mate says:

    And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you. – Friederich Nietzsche

  35. 35

    It ain’t rocket surgery:

    Principles of International Law Recognized in the Charter of the Nüremberg Tribunal and in the Judgment of the Tribunal, 1950.

    ” Principle I
    Any person who commits an act which constitutes a crime under international law is responsible therefor and liable to punishment.

    Principle III
    The fact that a person who committed an act which constitutes a crime under international law acted as Head of State or responsible Government official does not relieve him from responsibility under international law.

    Principle IV
    The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him.

    Principle VII
    Complicity in the commission of a crime against peace, a war crime, or a crime against humanity as set forth in Principle VI is a crime under international law.”

  36. 36

    From the “Levin Memo” (2004):

    “…Two final points on the issue of specific intent: First, specific intent must be distinguished from motive. There is no exception under the statute permitting torture to be used for a “good reason.” Thus, a defendant’s motive (to protect national security, for example) is not relevant to the question whether he has acted with the requisite specific intent under the statute. See Cheek v. United States, 498 U.S. 192, 200-01 (1991). Second, specific intent to take a given action can be found even if the defendant will take the action only conditionally. Cf., e.g., Holloway v. United States, 526 U.S. 1, 11 (1999) (“[A] defendant may not negate a proscribed intent by requiring the victim to comply with a condition the defendant has no right to impose.”). See also id. at 10-11 & nn. 9-12; Model Penal Code § 2.02(6). Thus, for example, the fact that a victim might have avoided being tortured by cooperating with the perpetrator would not make permissible actions otherwise constituting torture under the statute. Presumably that has frequently been the case with torture, but that fact does not make the practice of torture any less abhorrent or unlawful…”

  37. 37
    Tommy says:

    @Ruckus: Exactly. I am a military brat but have not served myself. Pretty much all the males (and even a few women) have served. I am close to 100% sure if any of them we’re asking to torture somebody they would not have done it. No way. Orders are orders. If you are told to go charge that hill, you know you might die, you charge that hill. But orders that are not lawful, well as you and others have said you are taught how to deal with them. You don’t obey.

  38. 38

    A Small Clique Of Legal Extremists… (February 24, 2008)

    “Changi Prison, October 1943

    … The Japanese were trying to establish that there was a spy organization in Changi Prison which received and transmitted by radio telephony, which had established contacts in the town for the purpose of sabotage and [12937] stirring up of anti-Japanese feeling, and which collected money from outside for this purpose. In fact, there was no organization, no radio transmission and no attempt to promote anti-Japanese activities outside the Camp…[12939]

    …Usually interrogations started quietly and would continue as long as the inquisitors got the expected answers. If, for any reason, such answers were not forthcoming, physical violence was immediately…

    …[12940] employed. The methods used were:

    (1) Water Torture. There were two forms of water torture. In the first, the victim was tied or held down on his back and a cloth placed over his nose and mouth. Water was then poured on the cloth…”

    International Military Tribunal for the Far East – Proceedings, p. 12,936.

  39. 39
    Mike in NC says:

    @PurpleGirl: I was leaving it open to various hags: Peggy Noonan, Jennifer Rubin, etc.

  40. 40
    Culture of Truth says:

    big supporter of Amnesty International and wanted to help the human rights organization raise money for child abuse

    Oh, I see his mistake. You see doctor, in fact, Amnesty International opposes child abuse.

  41. 41
    Steeplejack says:

    @Bitter and Deluded Lurker:

    Flak is from the German acronym for Fliegerabwehrkanonen, “flyer defense cannons.” Not a c to be found.

    The origin of flack (in the 1930s) is obscure and is sometimes given as a Billboard magazine corruption of a Yiddish word; others say it is after Gene Flack, a movie publicity agent.

  42. 42
    Bitter and Deluded Lurker says:

    @Steeplejack: Which is irrelevant to actual usage.

  43. 43
    Keith G says:

    Is there a statute of limitations on torture? If the guy (and his compatriots) is/are so bad, let the system have it’s way with him.

    This, or any, president has a duty to uphold the law and investigate these guys as if they were leakers. There is no morally legitimate excuse for not doing so. If after a vigorous investigation he is found to not be culpable then so be it.

  44. 44
    Concerned Citizen says:

    @Cermet: No one should be tortured. It’s wrong.

  45. 45
    Kyle says:

    Mitchell said: “You’re asked to believe he [Soufan] was getting all of this great information [without torture} and the CIA said: ‘Well, never mind. We’re not interested in that information. We’re not interested in the truth. We’re going to do this other thing. Why? Because we’re mean?’ I worked for a lot of different organizations and they really care about results.”

    I’ve worked for authoritarian organizations that worked exactly like this. Someone high up believed in an idea that was stupid and wrong, and the job of their underlings was to give them the result they wanted to hear. If it was mean, that was a bonus.

  46. 46
    J says:

    @Bitter and Deluded Lurker: For what they are worth, my native speaker’s intuitions, memories and the like are with Steeplejack.

  47. 47
    Craig says:

    We executed people for waterboarding US soldiers during World War II.

  48. 48
    Enhanced Voting Techniques says:

    @Svensker: Yes, this – that was word for word all of the Nazi warcriminal’s defenses.

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