The Torture of Abu Zubaydah: The Complaint Filed Against James Mitchell for Ethical Violations


To complement my recent article, “Abu Zubaydah and the Case Against Torture Architect James Mitchell,” analyzing the complaint filed with the Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists regarding ethical violations by Dr. James Elmer Mitchell, one of the architects of the Bush administration’s torture program, I’m reproducing below the full complaint, primarily, as I explained in my article, “because of its detailed explanations of Mitchell’s unprofessional activities,” but also because it “covers extensively what was actually involved in the torture of Abu Zubaydah,” beyond the short summary I cited at the start of my article. A PDF of the complaint is here. Please note that I have included hyperlinks and references where possible, but see the original for the full footnotes.


Conduct being reported: Ethical violations, Provision of services beyond expertise (see attached), Violation of multiple standards.

In August 2002, at a secret prison in Thailand, a psychologist stood over a prisoner. The psychologist was James Elmer Mitchell; the prisoner was Abu Zubaydah. Zubaydah had been in custody since his arrest in Pakistan March 28, 2002. Dr. Mitchell took over his interrogation shortly thereafter. He had ordered that Zubaydah be chained to a chair for weeks on end; that he be whipped by the neck into concrete walls; that he be stuffed into a small, black box and left for hours; that he be hung naked from the ceiling; that he be kept awake for 11 consecutive days, and sprayed with cold water if he dozed. But the torture designed by Dr. Mitchell was about to pass to another level. It was time to implement the final stage of Dr. Mitchell’s program [International Committee of the Red Cross, ICRC Report on the Treatment of Fourteen “High Value Detainees” in CIA Custody, February 2007 (PDF), pp. 28-31; Central Intelligence Agency Inspector, Special Review: Counterterrorism Detention and Interrogation Activities (September 2001-October 2003), 7 May 2004 (PDF), p. 15; Jason Leopold, Truthout, Zubaydah’s Torture, Detention Subject of Senate Inquiry].

Abu Zubaydah lay strapped to a gurney specially designed to maximize his suffering. His feet were above his head, just as Dr. Mitchell had ordered. His hands, arms, legs, chest, and head were restrained by heavy leather straps. As Zubaydah lay helpless, Mitchell and his subordinates placed a black cloth over his face and began to pour water onto the cloth. Rivers of water ran up Zubaydah’s nose and down his throat. He could not breathe. Panic gripped him as he began to drown. And when Mitchell sensed that Zubaydah dangled on the precipice between life and death, he ordered that the board be raised. Zubaydah expelled the water in a violent, racking spasm of coughing, gurgling and gasping. But before Zubaydah could catch his breath, Dr. Mitchell repeated the experiment. Then he did it again. And again. According to the United States Government, Abu Zubaydah was water-boarded 83 times in August 2002 alone.

Dr. James Elmer Mitchell is currently a psychologist licensed in the state of Texas.

The road to torture in a Thai prison began six months earlier. After 9/11, Dr. Mitchell had approached the U.S. Government with a proposition. Though he had never conducted an interrogation and had no training as an interrogator, and though he had no expertise in al-Qaeda and no familiarity with the organization, and though he did not speak Arabic and had no training in radical Islam, Mitchell nonetheless said he could design and implement an interrogation plan for alleged al-Qaeda suspects. Mitchell had taught U.S. soldiers how to resist unlawful interrogations, and now offered to reverse-engineer those principles and transform them into a set of “enhanced interrogation techniques.” The C.I.A. took Mitchell at his word, and paid him as much as $2,000 per day, plus expenses, tax free.

The U.S. Government has now concluded that Dr. Mitchell misrepresented his qualifications, violated his professional duty to persons in his care, and acted without a legitimate scientific basis. The C.I.A Office of Medical Services (the OMS), with which Dr. Mitchell did not consult during either the design or implementation of the program, concluded that Dr. Mitchell misrepresented his qualifications and that “there was no a priori reason to believe [Dr. Mitchell’s program] was either efficacious or medically safe.” The OMS has also concluded there was no scientific basis to believe that the interrogation plan would produce reliable intelligence [CIA IG Report, pp. 21-22].

Colonel Steve Kleinman, an interrogator with years of experience, testified to the U.S. Senate that Mitchell was “stepping out of [his] area of expertise.” The U.S. Armed Services Senate Committee, which investigated the issue, found that Dr. Mitchell, and his colleague Dr. Bruce Jessen, were “neither trained interrogators nor are they qualified to be.” Michael Rolince, former section chief of the FBI’s International Terrorism Operations, described the methods employed by Drs. Mitchell and Jessen as “voodoo science.” The CIA terminated its contract with Dr. Mitchell in the spring of 2009. [U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee Inquiry into the Treatment of Detainees in U.S. Custody, 2008 (PDF), p. xiii; Amanda Witherell, Project Censored, MISSOULA INDEP., Vol. 19; Issue 41 (Oct. 9, 2008); Leon E. Panetta, Message from the Director: Interrogation Policy and Contracts, Central Intelligence Agency, Apr. 9, 2009].

The psychological community has roundly condemned Dr. Mitchell. The Ethics Committee of the American Psychological Association (APA), for instance, issued a statement on June 19, 2009, stating that “[p]sychologists are absolutely prohibited from knowingly planning, designing, participating in or assisting in the use of [mock executions, water-boarding or any other form of simulated drowning, physical assault including slapping or shaking, exposure to extreme heat or cold, threats of harm or death] at any time and may not enlist others to employ these techniques in order to circumvent this resolution’s prohibition.” All of these techniques, of course, were designed and employed by Dr. Mitchell, who has never acknowledged the impropriety of his role or disavowed any of his actions. Dr. Mitchell remains licensed as a psychologist in the state of Texas.

Dr. Mitchell has sullied his profession by violating the standards demanded by the Psychologists’ Licensing Act and the Board’s Rules of Practice. His transgressions fall into three categories:

  • First, to achieve his ultimate plan of implementing a brutal interrogation and torture regime, Dr. Mitchell misrepresented his professional qualifications and experience to the Central Intelligence Agency. He also placed his own career and financial aspirations above the safety of others.
  • Second, Dr. Mitchell designed this torture regime only by ignoring the complete lack of a scientific basis for the regime’s safety and — assuming its safety — its effectiveness. In doing so, he failed to take reasonable steps to ensure the safety of others.
  • Third, and most ominously, Dr. Mitchell himself tortured prisoners held in U.S. custody and directly supervised others who engaged in torture at his direction.

The Board’s mission is to “protect the public by ensuring that psychological services … are provided by qualified and competent practitioners who adhere to established professional Standards.” Dr. Mitchell’s behavior appears to fail to meet this standard.

Dr. Mitchell’s education and experience provided him no reasonable basis to believe he could design and implement an interrogation program. After joining the U.S. Air Force in 1974, Dr. Mitchell earned a Master’s of Science in Counseling from the University of Alaska in 1981. He wrote his thesis on “The Effects of Induced Elation and Depression on Interpersonal Problem Solving Efficiency.” In 1986, he received a Ph.D. from the University of South Florida, where he wrote a dissertation on “The Effectiveness of a High Potassium/ Moderate Sodium Restriction Diet and Aerobic Exercise as Interventions for Borderline Hypertension.” None of Mitchell’s academic research involved interrogations, let alone the mechanisms for designing and implementing a safe and effective interrogation program.

Following his formal education, Dr. Mitchell began his career as a psychologist at Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane, Washington, in 1986.29 By 1988, he had become a SERE Psychologist. SERE is an acronym for “Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape.” The SERE training program is part of the Department of Defense Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA). SERE students are taught how to survive in various terrain, evade and endure captivity, resist interrogations, and conduct themselves to prevent harm to themselves and fellow prisoners of war. The program is designed to train soldiers at risk of capture and interrogation to defend and resist against torture. The U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Force have each developed their own version of the SERE program.

SERE attempts to train American soldiers how to resist psychological pressure from an enemy who engages in unlawful interrogations. The SERE curriculum is classified, but SERE graduates and instructors have disclosed some of its methods. Prisoners are held in a mock prison camp, where “guards” deprive them of food and sleep and subject them to repeated coercive interrogations. By May 2001, Dr. Mitchell had retired from the Air Force’s SERE program. Later, he opened a private consulting company called KnowledgeWorks, L.L.C.

But after the September 11 attacks, Dr. Mitchell saw an opportunity to sell his independent consulting services to the CIA. The CIA hired him to review a document known as the “Manchester Manual,” which described resistance training given to some members of al Qaeda. Dr. Mitchell contacted his former colleague, Dr. John (Bruce) Jessen, for assistance. Though they had no expertise or familiarity with al-Qaeda, Mitchell and Jessen wrote a paper titled “Recognizing and Developing Countermeasures to Al-Qa’ida Resistance to Interrogation Techniques: A Resistance Training Perspective.” But Mitchell did not content himself with claiming a false expertise in al-Qaeda’s resistance training. Though he had no qualifications as an interrogator, Mitchell (with Jessen) also marketed himself to the CIA as an expert in conducting counter-terrorism interrogations of alleged Islamic fundamentalists. On their own initiative, they “developed a list of new and more aggressive EITs [enhanced interrogation techniques] that they recommended for use in interrogations.” They “reverse-engineered” SERE by recommending that techniques previously applied only in mock, controlled settings now be used in real-world interrogations.  Among others, the EITS included the facial hold, facial slap, cramped confinement, confinement with insects, wall standing, stress positions, sleep deprivation, waterboarding, and sexual humiliation [CIA IG Report, p. 13].

Air Force Colonel Steve Kleinman, a former colleague at SERE who was also a career military interrogator with training in intelligence, stated that when Dr. Mitchell and Dr. Jessen became involved in CIA interrogations, “that was their first step into the world of intelligence … Everything else was role-play.” “What [Dr. Mitchell and Dr. Jessen] failed to understand was they were stepping out of their area of expertise,” yet they nonetheless promoted themselves as offensive interrogation experts despite the “disconnect between the SERE model, a resistance model, and an actual interrogation for intelligence purposes.”

By actively misrepresenting his professional qualifications, Mitchell violated the Psychologists’ Licensing Act, which prohibits a Texas-licensed psychologist from “engag[ing] in fraud or deceit in connection with services provided as a psychologist.” Moreover, the Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists’ Rules of Practice state: “Licensees provide only services for which they have the education, skills, and training to perform competently.” Dr. Mitchell violated the Board’s Rules of Practice governing competency when he went beyond his limited background to develop and implement interrogation techniques. Moreover, in extending his independent contract with the CIA, Dr. Mitchell lacked professional objectivity by placing his own career and financial aspirations above the safety of others.

In recommending a new and untested interrogation program of his own design to the CIA, Dr. Mitchell also violated the Board’s Rule of Practice requiring licensees to rely on scientifically and professionally derived knowledge when making professional judgments. Moreover, he failed to take reasonable steps to ensure the safety of others involved in this emerging field of psychology and interrogation. To understand the extent to which Dr. Mitchell violated these Rules, it is essential to understand the stark differences between SERE resistance training and the real-world interrogation regime that Dr. Mitchell developed and implemented as a CIA contractor.

In testifying before the Senate Committee on Armed Services [PDF], Colonel Steve Kleinman summarized several of the key differences between SERE mock interrogation techniques and real-world interrogations:

To the non-intelligence officer, the transfer of SERE methods from the training environment to real-world operations seemed a logical option. Several critical factors, however, were overlooked. First, many of the methods used in SERE training are based on what was once known as the Communist Interrogation Model, a system designed to physically and psychologically debilitate a detainee as a means of gaining compliance. Second, that model‘s primary objective was to compel a prisoner to generate propaganda not intelligence. Third, it was expressly designed to mirror a program that employed methods of interrogation considered by the West to be violations of the Geneva Conventions.

The problems with employing SERE techniques in the interrogation of detainees do not stop there. I want to emphasize that survival instructors are some of the most dedicated professionals in Armed Forces. Their tireless work supports a noble mission: to prepare others to return with honor. I would be remiss, though, if I did not make one point abundantly clear: survival instructors are not interrogators. While interrogation and teaching resistance to interrogation have much in common, they are nonetheless profoundly different activities.

  • Survival instructors operate in a domestic training environment and share both a language and culture with the students they teach. In contrast, interrogators are involved in worldwide operations and interact with foreign nationals across an often substantial cultural and linguistic divide.
  • If questions arise about the student‘s veracity during role-play, a survival instructor need only call the student‘s unit of assignment to verify the information. Clearly, this is not an option for an interrogator for whom detecting deception is a critical skill.
  • While interrogation role-play is limited in duration, frequency, and scope, interrogations of custodial detainees may last hours and continue over a span of months.
  • The survival instructor’s focus is not on information but the performance of the student while the interrogator must doggedly pursue — and record — every detail of intelligence information a detainee possesses.

There are other differences between SERE and real-world interrogations. As the Senate Armed Services Committee observed, “SERE instructors are not selected for their roles based on language skills, intelligence training, or expertise in eliciting information.” The Committee’s Report continues:

Typically, those who play the part of interrogators in SERE school neither are trained interrogators nor are they qualified to be. These role players are not trained to obtain reliable intelligence information from detainees. Their job is to train our personnel to resist providing reliable information to our enemies. As the Deputy Commander for the Joint Forces Command (JFCOM), JPRA’s higher headquarters, put it: “the expertise of JPRA lies in training personnel how to respond and resist interrogations — not in how to conduct interrogations.”

Furthermore, SERE school instructors receive extensive psychological testing prior to being hired, and they must undergo a year-long training process, annual psychological screening, and extensive monitoring and oversight during practical exercises in order to “prevent instructor behavioral drift, which if left unmonitored, could lead to abuse of students.” At SERE schools,

[i]nstructors are constantly monitored by other JPRA personnel, command staff, and SERE psychologists to minimize the potential for students to be injured. These oversight mechanisms are designed to ensure that SERE instructors are complying with operating instructions and to check for signs that instructors do not suffer from moral disengagement (e.g., by becoming too absorbed in their roles as interrogators and starting to view U.S. military SERE students as prisoners or detainees). These oversight mechanisms are also designed to watch students for “indications that they are not coping well with training tasks, provide corrective interventions with them before they become overwhelmed, and if need be, re-motivate students who have become overwhelmed to enable them to succeed” [Senate Report, pp. xiii, 5].

In contrast to the year-long training that SERE school instructors receive, the CIA initiated a two-week “Interrogator Training Course” in November 2002 designed to “train, qualify, and certify individuals as Agency interrogators.” This program included one week of classroom instruction and one week of “hands on” training [CIA IG Report, p. 31].

Another crucial difference between SERE and real-world interrogation is the level of controls employed to reduce the risk of physical and psychological harm to students during training, but absent from real-world interrogation settings. The Senate Armed Services Report states,

SERE school techniques are designed to simulate abusive tactics used by our enemies. There are fundamental differences between a SERE school exercise and a real world interrogation. At SERE school, students are subject to an extensive medical and psychological pre-screening prior to being subjected to physical and psychological pressures. The schools impose strict limits on the frequency, duration, and/or intensity of certain techniques. Psychologists are present throughout SERE training to intervene should the need arise and to help students cope with associated stress. And SERE school is voluntary; students are even given a special phrase they can use to immediately stop the techniques from being used against them.

The SERE schools, including the Air Force SERE school where Dr. Mitchell worked, employ strict controls to reduce the risk of physical and psychological harm to students during training. These controls are absent from real world interrogations.

Moreover, the use of physical pressures differs between SERE school training and real world interrogations regarding the use of physical pressures:

Because of the danger involved, very few SERE instructors are allowed to actually use physical pressures. It is extremely easy for U.S. Army instructors, training U. S. Army soldiers, to get out of hand, and to injure students. The training, from the point of the student, appears to be chaotic and out of control. In reality, everything that is occurring [in SERE school] is very carefully monitored and paced; no one is acting on their own during training. Even with all these safeguards, injuries and accidents do happen. The risk with real detainees is increased exponentially [Senate Report, pp. xiii, xix, 5-6].

As Dr. Mitchell himself acknowledged, “the Agency’s use of the technique differed from that used in SERE training” because “the Agency’s technique … is ‘for real’ and is more poignant and convincing.” For example, the Inspector General’s report explains that the waterboarding method used in CIA black sites was more brutal than the method used in SERE schools and described in the Office of Legal Counsel memorandum because the black site method used greater volumes of water and more obstructed breathing. “At the SERE school and in the DoJ opinion, the subject’s airflow is disrupted by the firm application of a damp cloth over the air passage. By contrast, the Agency‘s interrogator … continuously applied large volumes of water to a cloth that covered the detainee’s mouth and nose.” Moreover, whereas at the SERE school “trainees usually have only a single exposure to this [waterboard] technique, and never more than two,” individuals interrogated in the real world post 9/11 were waterboarded dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of times. Dr. Mitchell intentionally ignored these critical differences of both environment and methodology in promoting his reverse-engineered SERE program to the CIA, as well as when personally applying the harsher waterboard techniques to detainees. Even with the differences between the programs ignored, the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Army abandoned the waterboarding program at its SERE school because of its dramatic and dangerous effect on the students to whom it was applied. In sum, the SERE training environment simply cannot be analogized to the real-world interrogation setting [CIA Report, pp. 13, 22, 29, 37, Appendix F. Also see testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee (PDF) by Dr. Jerald Ogrisseg, JPRA’s SERE Research Psychologist and a former Air Force SERE school psychologist, who identified a total of eight significant differences between students enrolled in a SERE course undergoing a mock interrogation and a real-world interrogation setting: 1. Previous level of functioning and demographic factors; 2. Purpose of the experience; 3. Risk management oversight functions; 4. Propensity for moral disengagement; 5. Psychological and operational debriefings; 6.”Voluntary’” nature of training; 7. Limited duration of the experience; 8. Adjustment to the experience and follow-on support].

Dr. Mitchell neither consulted nor involved the CIA’s Office of Medical Services (the OMS) prior to selling the program to the CIA. The OMS, in a subsequent review of the CIA’s adoption of Dr. Mitchell’s interrogation program, concluded that Dr. Mitchell did not have the expertise to develop an interrogation plan and that he misrepresented the medical safety of the program to the CIA and the Department of Justice. Further, OMS concluded that there was no proof, nor was there any reason to believe, that the EITs proposed by Dr. Mitchell would produce any sort of valuable intelligence from detainees as a form of interrogation [CIA IG Report, pp. 21-22]. There simply was no scientific support for Dr. Mitchell’s recommendations. At no time prior to implementing these programs did Dr. Mitchell conduct experiments, publish research about offensive interrogation techniques, or subject his theories to peer-review in a publicly-available forum. At no time did Mitchell establish that his techniques were safe and — if safe — whether they were effective in eliciting truth. One investigative report explained, “In truth, many did not consider Mitchell and Jessen to be scientists. They possessed no data about the impact of [SERE] training on the human psyche, say former associates. Nor were they ‘operational psychologists,’ like the profilers who work for law enforcement … But they wanted to be, according to several former colleagues.” Dr. Mitchell’s failure to verify his interrogation regime using scientifically sound, empirical methods therefore constitutes direct violations of the Board’s Rule of Practice requiring licensees to rely on scientifically and professionally derived knowledge when making professional judgments and the Rule requiring licensees to take reasonable steps to ensure the safety of others involved in emerging fields of study.

Dr. Mitchell tortured prisoners in U.S. custody. The first was Abu Zubaydah, whose torture is worth recounting in detail. Abu Zubaydah, a Palestinian national, was the first detainee captured after 9/11 who was believed to be a high-ranking member of al-Qaeda. Abu Zubaydah was also the first person to be subjected to the new regime of abusive interrogation that Mitchell (with Jessen) designed and implemented. The CIA Inspector General Report states that Abu Zubaydah’s capture “accelerated the CIA‘s development of an interrogation program” [CIA IG Report, pp. 2-3, 12]. According to former CIA Director George Tenet, once Abu Zubaydah was in custody, the CIA “got into holding and interrogating high-value detainees … in a serious way” [Senate Report, p. 16]. The CIA’s lack of experience in interrogation may have made the agency susceptible to Dr. Mitchell’s claims about the efficacy of the methods. Whatever the explanation, Abu Zubaydah’s interrogation was used as an opportunity to test a set of experimental techniques, devised by Dr. Mitchell, that the United States had never before approved for use on its captives. [Regarding the possibility that the CIA was susceptible to Mitchell’s methods, this interpretation is suggested by the congressional testimony of Ali Soufan, an FBI interrogator who initially questioned Abu Zubaydah: “[T]he CIA specializes in collecting, analyzing, and interpreting intelligence. The FBI, on the other hand, has a trained investigative branch. Until that point, we were complementing each other’s expertise, until the imposition of the ‘enhanced methods.’ As a result people ended up doing what they were not trained to do.” Statement of Ali Soufan, Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, May 13, 2009 (PDF)].

On March 28, 2002, Abu Zubaydah was captured at a home in Pakistan by combined Pakistani and CIA forces. He was subsequently detained in secret CIA black sites located around the world, reportedly including facilities in Thailand, Afghanistan, Poland, and elsewhere. In September 2006, Zubaydah was transferred to the Guantánamo Bay prison, where he remains in U.S. custody. Abu Zubaydah was once described as al-Qaeda’s “chief of operations” and a “trusted associate” of Osama bin Laden. The United States, however, now accepts that these accusations are untrue. The United States Government no longer alleges that Abu Zubaydah was a member of al-Qaeda. The United States no longer alleges that Abu Zubaydah was an associate of bin Laden or a deputy in his organization. The United States no longer alleges that Zubaydah had any involvement in the attacks of 9/11, or that he had any advance knowledge that the attacks would take place. The United States no longer alleges that Zubaydah had any involvement in any al-Qaeda attacks on the United States or its interests, at home or abroad, and no longer alleges that Zubaydah knew about any other attacks that may have been planned by al-Qaeda at the time of his arrest March 28, 2002. Indeed, according to published reports, “within weeks of his capture, U.S. officials had gained evidence that made clear they had misjudged Abu Zubaida [Zubaydah].” Despite the Government’s former claims about Abu Zubaydah, he has never been charged with a crime, either in a military commission or a civilian court.

During the raid that led to his capture, Abu Zubaydah was shot in the groin, thigh, and stomach and suffered “severe wounds.” A medical team determined that he would die if not treated in a hospital. Abu Zubaydah was taken to a hospital, first in Pakistan and then at a black site in Thailand, where he spent several weeks being treated and where his initial questioning began. Zubaydah was initially interrogated using “non-aggressive, non-physical” techniques. FBI agents questioned him and reportedly used traditional methods based on the Army Field Manual. According to one of the FBI interrogators who conducted these sessions, Zubaydah was cooperative.

Soon, however, a CIA Counterterrorism Team arrived at the black site and assumed control over the interrogation. The CIA team included an outside contractor “who was instructing them on how they should conduct the interrogations.” This contractor was Dr. Mitchell. Deeming the FBI methods to be insufficient, Dr. Mitchell said they “needed to diminish [Abu Zubaydah’s] capacity to resist.” “Immediately, on the instructions of the contractor, harsh techniques were introduced, starting with nudity.” As time progressed, Mitchell moved “further along the force continuum, introducing loud noise and then temperature manipulation” [Department of Justice Inspector General, A Review of the FBI’s Involvement in and Observations of Detainee Interrogations in Guantanamo Bay, Afghanistan and Iraq, May 2008 (PDF), pp. 67-8; Soufan Senate testimony; Senate Report, p. 17].

Abu Zubaydah was subsequently kept naked for between one and a half to two months and his clothes were provided or removed according to how cooperative his interrogators perceived him to be. He was also systematically deprived of sleep for a period of two to three weeks by the combined use of painful shackling, loud music, cold temperatures, and being doused with water. The cell was kept very cold by the use of air-conditioning and very loud “shouting” music was constantly playing on an approximately fifteen minute repeat loop twenty-four hours a day. Sometimes the music stopped and was replaced by a loud hissing or crackling noise. As part of the regime of total control designed to strip detainees of their autonomy, Abu Zubaydah was denied solid foods. He was fed only high-calorie liquids which provided him with minimal sustenance and left him constantly hungry [ICRC Report, pp. 14, 15, 18].

According to one of the FBI agents who observed the CIA‘s harsh methods with dismay, Mitchell “insisted on stepping up the notches of his experiment,” and devised the idea of placing Abu Zubaydah in confinement boxes. One box was too narrow to allow him to sit down; the other was so short that instead of standing he reportedly “had to double up his limbs in a fetal position.” The coffin-like boxes were black, both inside and out, and covered with towels, possibly in an effort to constrict the flow of air inside. While the CIA was inflicting escalating levels of abuse on Abu Zubaydah, he was still recovering from his gunshot wounds. In fact, the interrogators were so worried that Abu Zubaydah might die that they videotaped his interrogations in an attempt to protect themselves from potential liability. The CIA later destroyed these videotapes [Soufan Senate testimony; ICRC Report, p. 14; CIA IG Report, pp. 13, 36-37].

As part of his mistreatment, Zubaydah was slammed directly into hard concrete walls (only later covered by a plywood sheet), with a thick collar placed around his neck that was presumably intended to protect him from additional life-threatening injury. He was also forced to stand with his wrists shackled to a bar or hook in the ceiling above his head, and with his feet shackled to an eye bolt in the floor, for more than 40 hours. This is widely regarded as one of the most painful physical torture techniques. As described by the Red Cross, “prisoners subjected to this method are made to stand naked, held with the arms extended and chained above the head … for periods from two or three days continuously, and for up to two or three months intermittently, during which period toilet access was sometimes denied resulting in allegations from four detainees that they had to defecate and urinate over themselves” [ICRC Report, pp. 8, 11-12].

The infliction of this stress position contributed to the death of one detainee in the internment facility at Bagram Air Base [for a report on Dilawar’s death, see Senate Report, pp. 151-2]. For Abu Zubaydah, this stress-position technique was often combined with the “cold cell” technique, so that he was left to stand naked and repeatedly doused with cold water in a cell kept near 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

Mitchell and Jessen also worked to identify Abu Zubaydah’s phobias. After discovering an especially vehement phobia that Abu Zubaydah suffered from, the psychologists devised a scheme to terrorize Abu Zubaydah with this fear: “You would like to place Zubaydah in a cramped confinement box with an insect. You have informed us that he appears to have a fear of insects. In particular, you would like to tell Zubaydah that you intend to place a stinging insect into the box with him” [2nd Bybee/Yoo memo, August 1, 2002 (PDF), p. 3]. As many reporters have noted, this technique is reminiscent of an incident in George Orwell‘s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which the fictional government terrorizes the protagonist by exploiting his intense fear of rats.

Finally, Zubaydah was waterboarded at least 83 times in August 2002, usually twice per session and sometimes three times in a single session [CIA IG Report, p. 36; ICRC Report, p. 10]. The Red Cross report contains Abu Zubaydah’s own description of his waterboarding. His account describes how waterboarding was used, to devastating effect, in combination with the other abusive techniques described above:

During these torture sessions many guards were present, plus two interrogators who did the actual beating, still asking questions, while the main interrogator left to return after the beating was over. After the beating I was then placed in the small box. They placed a cloth or cover over the box to cut out all light and restrict my air supply. As it was not high enough even to sit upright, I had to crouch down. It was very difficult because of my wounds. The stress on my legs held in this position meant my wounds both in the leg and stomach became very painful. I think this occurred about 3 months after my last operation. It was always cold in the room, but when the cover was placed over the box it made it hot and sweaty inside. The wound on my leg began to open and started to bleed.  I don‘t know how long I remained in the small box, I think I may have slept or maybe fainted.

I was then dragged from the small box, unable to walk properly and put on what looked like a hospital bed, and strapped down very tightly with belts. A black cloth was then placed over my face and the interrogators used a mineral water bottle to pour water on the cloth so that I could not breathe. After a few minutes the cloth was removed and the bed was rotated into an upright position. The pressure of the straps on my wounds was very painful. I vomited. The bed was then again lowered to a horizontal position and the same torture carried out again with the black cloth over my face and water poured on from a bottle. On this occasion my head was in a more backward, downwards position and the water was poured on for a longer time. I struggled against the straps, trying to breathe, but it was hopeless. I thought I was going to die …

I was then placed again in the tall box. While I was inside the box loud music was played again and somebody kept banging repeatedly on the box from the outside. I tried to sit down on the floor, but because of the small space the bucket with urine tipped over and spilt over me. I remained in the box for several hours, maybe overnight. I was then taken out and again a towel was wrapped around my neck and I was smashed into the wall with the plywood covering and repeatedly slapped in the face by the same two interrogators as before …

This went on for approximately one week. During this time the whole procedure was repeated five times. On each occasion, apart from one, I was suffocated once or twice and was put in the vertical position on the bed in between. On one occasion the suffocation was repeated three times. I vomited each time I was put in the vertical position between the suffocation.

During that week I was not given any solid food … My head and beard were shaved everyday.

I collapsed and lost consciousness on several occasions. Eventually the torture was stopped by the intervention of the doctor.

I was told during this period that I was one of the first to receive these interrogation techniques, so no rules applied. It felt like they were experimenting and trying out techniques to be used later on other people [ICRC Report, p. 30].

Not surprisingly, the effects of the interrogation program are deep and long-lasting. Abu Zubaydah reports, “Since then I still lose control of my urine when under stress.”

The Red Cross has concluded that many of the techniques inflicted upon Abu Zubaydah — whether used singly or in combination — constitute torture. Others constitute cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. The Red Cross has also stated: “The alleged participation of health personnel in the interrogation process and, either directly or indirectly, in the infliction of ill-treatment constituted a gross breach of medical ethics and, in some cases, amounted to participation in torture and/or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” [ICRC Report, pp. 24, 26-7].

Regardless of what legal categories these techniques fall within, one conclusion is clear: a psychologist who helps inflict such cruel and shocking abuse on a defenseless human being would appear to have violated basic standards of conduct of the profession. Dr. Mitchell not only enabled and participated in Abu Zubaydah’s torment, he also personally designed the abusive and degrading techniques to which Zubaydah was subjected.

In 2008, the American Psychological Association dropped its certification of Dr. Mitchell‘s company, KnowledgeWorks. The Ethics Committee of the American Psychological Association (APA) on February 22, 2008 issued an Amendment to their Resolution Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and Its Application to Individuals Defined in the United States Code as “Enemy Combatants.” In this statement, the APA stated that “[p]sychologists are absolutely prohibited from knowingly planning, designing, participating in or assisting in the use of all condemned techniques at any time and may not enlist others to employ these techniques in order to circumvent this resolution’s prohibition” and set forth the following description of specific actions that constitute torture:

[M]ock executions; water-boarding or any other form of simulated drowning or suffocation; sexual humiliation; rape; cultural or religious humiliation; exploitation of fears, phobias or psychopathology; induced hypothermia; the use of psychotropic drugs or mind-altering substances; hooding; forced nakedness; stress positions; the use of dogs to threaten or intimidate; physical assault including slapping or shaking; exposure to extreme heat or cold; threats of harm or death; isolation; sensory deprivation and over-stimulation; sleep deprivation; or the threatened use of any of the above techniques to an individual or to members of an individual’s family.

Dr. Mitchell is not an APA member.

Discussing Dr. Mitchell and Dr. Jessen, Colonel Kleinman, an Air Force Reserve Colonel and expert in human-intelligence operations, found it astonishing that the CIA “chose two clinical psychologists who had no intelligence background whatsoever, who had never conducted an interrogation … to do something that had never been proven in the real world.” Michael Rolince, former section chief of the FBI’s International Terrorism Operations, described the methods employed by Dr. Mitchell and Dr. Jessen as “voodoo science.” Speaking of Dr. Mitchell and Dr. Jessen, Steve Kleinman has stated, “I think they have caused more harm to American national security than they‘ll ever understand.”

Dr. Mitchell repeatedly failed to abide by the standards of the Psychologists Licensing Act (the Act) and the Rules promulgated by the Board under the Act (the Board Rules). He violated the Board Rules governing competency, professional objectivity, basis for scientific and professional judgments, duties concerning emerging areas of psychology, professional supervision, improper sexual conduct and exploitation of authority, research without informed consent, evaluation, assessment, and testing of a human subject without informed consent, as well as the Act‘s prohibition against fraud and deceit in connection with psychological services, and the Act‘s prohibition against violations of Chapter 81 of the Civil Practice and Remedies Code for sexual exploitation by a mental health provider.


I convey these observations and opinions to the Board not only as a citizen, but in my role as its licensee, mindful that I “must report conduct by a licensee that appears to involve harm or the potential for harm to any individual, or a violation of Board rule, a state law or federal law.” I request Board review of this matter and appropriate action.

Jim L. H. Cox, PhD., Helotes, Texas, assisted by Dicky Grigg, Spivey & Grigg, L.L.P., Austin, Texas and Joseph Margulies, Clinical Professor of Law, Roderick MacArthur Justice Center, Northwestern University School of Law, Chicago, IL.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), and my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

For a sequence of articles dealing with the use of torture by the CIA, on “high-value detainees,” and in the secret prisons, see: Guantánamo’s tangled web: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Majid Khan, dubious US convictions, and a dying man (July 2007), Jane Mayer on the CIA’s “black sites,” condemnation by the Red Cross, and Guantánamo’s “high-value” detainees (including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed) (August 2007), Waterboarding: two questions for Michael Hayden about three “high-value” detainees now in Guantánamo (February 2008), Six in Guantánamo Charged with 9/11 Murders: Why Now? And What About the Torture? (February 2008), The Insignificance and Insanity of Abu Zubaydah: Ex-Guantánamo Prisoner Confirms FBI’s Doubts (April 2008), Guantánamo Trials: Another Torture Victim Charged (Abdul Rahim al-Nashiri, July 2008), Secret Prison on Diego Garcia Confirmed: Six “High-Value” Guantánamo Prisoners Held, Plus “Ghost Prisoner” Mustafa Setmariam Nasar (August 2008), Will the Bush administration be held accountable for war crimes? (December 2008), The Ten Lies of Dick Cheney (Part One) and The Ten Lies of Dick Cheney (Part Two) (December 2008), Prosecuting the Bush Administration’s Torturers (March 2009), Abu Zubaydah: The Futility Of Torture and A Trail of Broken Lives (March 2009), Ten Terrible Truths About The CIA Torture Memos (Part One), Ten Terrible Truths About The CIA Torture Memos (Part Two), 9/11 Commission Director Philip Zelikow Condemns Bush Torture Program, Who Authorized The Torture of Abu Zubaydah?, CIA Torture Began In Afghanistan 8 Months before DoJ Approval, Even In Cheney’s Bleak World, The Al-Qaeda-Iraq Torture Story Is A New Low (all April 2009), Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi Has Died In A Libyan Prison , Dick Cheney And The Death Of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, The “Suicide” Of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi: Why The Media Silence?, Two Experts Cast Doubt On Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi’s “Suicide”, Lawrence Wilkerson Nails Cheney On Use Of Torture To Invade Iraq, In the Guardian: Death in Libya, betrayal by the West (in the Guardian here), Lawrence Wilkerson Nails Cheney’s Iraq Lies Again (And Rumsfeld And The CIA) (all May 2009) and WORLD EXCLUSIVE: New Revelations About The Torture Of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi (June 2009), The Logic of the 9/11 Trials, The Madness of the Military Commissions (November 2009), UK Judges Compare Binyam Mohamed’s Torture To That Of Abu Zubaydah (November 2009), UN Secret Detention Report Asks, “Where Are The CIA Ghost Prisoners?” (January 2010), Binyam Mohamed: Evidence of Torture by US Agents Revealed in UK (February 2010), Torture Whitewash: How “Professional Misconduct” Became “Poor Judgment” in the OPR Report (February 2010), Judges Restore Damning Passage on MI5 to the Binyam Mohamed Torture Ruling (February 2010), What Torture Is, and Why It’s Illegal and Not “Poor Judgment” (March 2010), Abu Zubaydah’s Torture Diary (March 2010), Seven Years of War in Iraq: Still Based on Cheney’s Torture and Lies (March 2010), Protests worldwide on Aafia Siddiqui Day, Sunday March 28, 2010 (March 2010), Abu Zubaydah: Tortured for Nothing (April 2010), Mohamedou Ould Salahi: How a Judge Demolished the US Government’s Al-Qaeda Claims (April 2010), Judge Rules Yemeni’s Detention at Guantánamo Based Solely on Torture (April 2010), How Binyam Mohammed’s Torture Was Revealed in a US Court (May 2010), What is Obama Doing at Bagram? (Part One): Torture and the “Black Prison” (June 2010), New Report Reveals How Bush Torture Program Involved Human Experimentation (June 2010), UN Human Rights Council Discusses Secret Detention Report (June 2010), UN Secret Detention Report (Part One): The CIA’s “High-Value Detainee” Program and Secret Prisons (June 2010), UN Secret Detention Report (Part Two): CIA Prisons in Afghanistan and Iraq (June 2010), UN Secret Detention Report (Part Three): Proxy Detention, Other Countries’ Complicity, and Obama’s Record (June 2010). Also see the extensive archive of articles about the Military Commissions.

2 Responses

  1. Frances Madeson says...

    Thank you, Dr. Cox, for fulfilling your professional obligations (as well as for being a mensch).

    Andy, this was exactly my point last year when the torture memos were revealed. No matter whose name was ultimately affixed to the memoranda, all of the participating legal staff at Justice who had a hand in reviewing, researching, providing content and input into the memos while they were still in the form of unreleased drafts had abdicated their professional responsibilities (in addition to their moral ones). Here’s a link with the distinguishing characteristics of a “profession” as opposed to an occupation or job. Please see items 3, 7 and 12.

    Clearly, the culpability for SERE and the torture memos is shared by a wider pool than the individual actors and their circumflexive sheltering institutions. Next time you pay “professional” fees for “professional services” you might ask your lawyer or psychologist about that.

    As for Berkeley providing cover, prestige and financial security for torturers, it joins the ranks of Stanford and the researchers managing the prison experiment conducted there. Oh, but wait, that was a mock simulation conducted with consenting volunteers in a controlled laboratory in aid of knowledge production about the limits of human empathy and ethics which lasted for a total duration of less than one week. What Dr. “Good Ole Boy” Mitchell did was actual torture. Hmm, qualitatively different. I stand self-corrected.

    See how easy it is–both to go astray and aright?

  2. 'On This Day' 1970: USAID Torturer Dan Mitrione Executed by Tupamaro Rebels in Uruguay | Moral Low Ground says...

    […] how former CIA director George Tenet ordered agents to torture suspected al-Qaeda terrorist Abu Zubaydah even after he fully cooperated with […]

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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