The CIA is hiding the names of those who ordered and carried out the torture of Guantanamo detainees. Even after years of legal battles, the United States is likely still using black sites and torture.


Story Transcript

This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.

Marc Steiner: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you all with us. When you hear the word Guantanamo, what pops into your head? 9/11 and the Al-Qaeda prisoners who’ve been held there for a long time. What also pops into some of our minds is the word torture, and legal battles that had been raging all these years with detainees suing the United States government, the CIA, and psychologists like James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen who implemented, designed and carried out what’s called enhanced interrogation techniques, like waterboarding, slamming heads into walls, putting people in 21 by 30 inch boxes, and keep them naked in freezing temperatures. Some, as the detainees’ lawyers argue, would call it torture.

Now, after eight years of pretrial hearings, trials may begin of people like Khalid Sheik Mohammed and others who were involved in 9/11. Along with the allegations of torture are unknowns, like who was the preacher who oversaw torture? Are the FBI, the CIA and the U.S. Government keeping classified so, as some would argue, to keep the truth and the names of the authorisers and those who carried out their orders hidden from the light of day?

Are there still black sites around the world? Does tortures still continue? What are these hearings and trials really telling us? What’s about to happen here? We talk today with one of the people who’s been covering this for a long time and just got back from Guantanamo himself. Julian Borger, world affairs editor for The Guardian, who has been a correspondent throughout the world, the United States, Middle East, Eastern Europe, the Balkans.

His book on the pursuit and capture of the Balkan war criminals, the Butcher’s Trail, is published by other press and William Borger… Excuse me. Julian Borger, welcome. Good to have you with us.

Julian Borger: Good to be here.

Marc Steiner: Can we take a step back just for a moment and when I talked about that eight years of history and what has been going on, just a brief outline for a second for our viewers about what we what we’re about to talk about, what has led up to it?

Julian Borger: Well, these are detainees, five detainees who’ve been in Guantanamo now for 14 years. And these were still in pretrial hearings, this is eight years of pretrial hearings. There’s supposed to be a trial starting next year, but not everyone in Guantanamo is confident that the trial would actually start next year.

So we are a stuck in a kind of legal morass caused really by the nature of the detention and later treatment of these detainees who are on trial.

Marc Steiner: I mean this appears to be kind of standing amount of time for pretrial hearings. So I mean why is it taking this long? This is an inordinate amount of time to try and men who have been charged with these heinous crimes and also their defense attorneys were also arguing about torture. Why is it taking so long?

Julian Borger: This is because these people were picked up in Afghanistan, Pakistan around the world and interrogated by the CIA who were under the belief that they could give information that could stop a second wave of attacks after the 9/11 attacks. And so as we’ve been hearing from the witnesses this week, they didn’t really care about due process. They were just wanting to get information out to them they believe would stop a second attack.

So when they then changed their mind and decided they are going to prosecute these people and pursue the death penalty, then the way they treated them, the torture that they underwent becomes a very important part in terms of whether these people will go to trial. And obviously the defense is saying that neither the statements they gave under torture or after torture should be admissible in court because of the history of torture and the fact that these were statements given under duress.

So some of the defense are asking for the whole case to be dismissed. Others are saying that these statements that they gave in 2007 which really is the core of the prosecution case should not be admissible, and this is a legal limbo this case has been stuck out now for eight years.

Marc Steiner: So let’s talk about some of the people involved here that you mentioned in your article, the James Mitchell who has been testifying this week, and I think you said to me before we went on the air together that Bruce Chessen is about to testify. Why are they testifying and who are they? Tell us about them.

Julian Borger: Okay. These were two psychologists who had worked for the US Air Force and had taken on as CI, as private contractors. And initially they went out to these CIA black sites to observe what was going on and make recommendations as the CIA wanted to step up the pressure on these detainees to cough up information. But they ended up making these recommendations about how to set up interrogation based on US survival techniques as they train US pilots and other US members of armed forces to evade and resist interrogation when they’re captured.

And they wanted to bring these techniques that are used on US service members and make it the guidelines, the outline for what they called the enhanced interrogation techniques. And so they ended up designing this program and then they were asked by the CIA to apply this program. So in effect, they became hired torturers although they were contractors and eventually set up a company, Mitchell Jessen and Associates that sold these services to the US government.

Marc Steiner: And made a lot of money. I think it was your article, I believe it was in your article and it could’ve been someone else’s I read so much this morning that they made almost $81 million over like a four or five year period or did I read that wrong?

Julian Borger: No, that’s what they were paid. But that was to provide a whole lot of security guards. They ended up providing all the security guards for the black sites and rendition. So it was all contracted out. So that wasn’t your profit. That was what the total of government paid him. I think Mitchell was paid something around one and a half million and Justin’s slightly less.

Marc Steiner: A little more than you are making a year but there’s other people involved here. One we don’t know about called the preacher and the new sheriff, I guess a man named Charlie Wise who passed away some years back. But they’re key to a lot of this in terms of that knowing who they are. This is kind of tip of the iceberg, the secrets that we may never know.

Julian Borger: That’s right. I think Mitchell has been pushing back over the past week that he was the face on the totality of the enhanced interrogation system, and he has been pointing out and there is a lot of evidence that was a big bureaucracy and infrastructure around the use of torture. This was a sort of whole of government effort that the FBI was, it looks like more involved than they have made out in the past. And it went throughout the CIA and of course up to the top ranks of the Bush administration.

So this was a large and organized use of torture that involved other characters like the preacher, like Charlie Wise, who we’ve only found out his identity after he’s died. But the CIA will not be classify them. They won’t make any of the CIA officials or former officials so the defense have asked a question available except these two contractors. So Mitchell and Jessen. And so because in a way the CIA has been prepared to throw these two to the wolves, we know about them. But there’s a whole lot more that we don’t know about.

Marc Steiner: I mean you wrote in the piece, your most recent piece in The Guardian that almost everyone else involved in the extensive program involving a network of black sites around the world has remained in the shadows in terms of legality. It’s still the dark side of the moon. So I mean, for all we know a, these black sites can keep going on the tortures that see people say are torture, there’s a place in Guantanamo could still be going on. We don’t know how far up the chain this could go.

Does it go to the [inaudible 00:08:35]? Does it go to George Bush or to Obama or whoever else was in charge at the moment. So there’s a lot we don’t know and a lot we may never know. So I mean what do you think could come out in this trial hearing, if anything that could lead us to any conclusions?

Julian Borger: Well, I think we’re a long way from conclusions. I think the CIA would really have to change their attitude towards declassification or be forced to by the military commission or by habeas cases in the outside courts forced to declassify more than they’ve let on because even the Senate report on torture is a summary and a small fragment of the kinds of documentation that is out there. So it is possible if this ever went to trial that we would learn a whole lot more about the use of torture by the US in this period.

It is possible. For example, in the pretrial hearings that Abu Zubaydah, who was the first to undergo these enhanced interrogation techniques might be allowed to stand as a witness. Now up to now the government is resisting that but that has been challenged in court.

Marc Steiner: Because I think you wrote about this being the 40th hearing in eight years and that they’ve changed the rules as they go. That the things that were declassified and put in books were not classified, again as secrets so they can’t use them in court. So clearly the government is using everything they can to not let a lot of information out through the course of this trial which could affect everything as well as our understanding of the truth.

Julian Borger: Yeah. They have been using classification rules, tactically declassifying things when they want to enter them into evidence and then reclassifying them when it is possible that the defense might be able to use it to their advantage, and this was a good example. Just days before this hearings began, prosecution introduced a third version of the classification rules that made a material that had been published and been subject to CIA pre-publication review made that classified once more so that there was a question about whether defense councils in court over the past week could refer to books that have been out in print for years.

Marc Steiner: It’s one of the things I think is important talk just for a moment about, I mean this whole question of torture and how we define with torture is. I mean the UN and various human rights groups have declared things like waterboarding, I mean literally pouring water into somebody’s face and throat for up to 40 seconds at a time as torture. People feel they’re drowning and more, some people have died. And some other techniques like the rectal hydration and force feeding for the rectal cavity.
Those things also have been said by doctors to be not medically suitable. Nobody uses these techniques, and they’re classified as torture. So what about this argument about torture? I mean, what do we take from this?

Julian Borger: Well, I think even by the very narrow definition produced by the Bush administration about not causing lasting psychological or physical harm, even by that very narrow definition, clearly what went on in these years in the black sites was torture. But by the Geneva convention on torture and cruel degrading and inhuman treater treatment, there is no question that many of these techniques amounted to torture. And of course, Barack Obama admitted that that amounted to torture when he said, “Yes. Well, we tortured some folks.”

Marc Steiner: Exactly. And no matter which administration it was, this goes on and people like James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, who we talked about a moment ago who implemented all this and designed some of this were sued by detainees in the past and some secret settlement was made. And now they’re testifying, trying to blame on others and even getting, I think as you wrote, getting tearful in the courtroom.

Julian Borger: That’s right. Mitchell choked up on several occasions when looking back at the kind of choices he had to make and the sacrifices that in his view he made to protect the country, which was really something that really struck me that when prescribing waterboarding and the other techniques, he was entirely detached and would sometimes laugh and wink. It was very strange. But then when talking about his own dilemmas and sacrifices, he would choke out very easily and say, “This is a sort of guy who cries while watching dog food commercials.”

So there was something very strange about that distinction between him talking about himself and talking about what he did to other people.

Marc Steiner: Well, when you wrote that in which we’re just speaking about, it reminds me sometimes of the things that a number of trials in other places were just very normal. Everyday human beings carry this stuff out, and there are many, many other people involved as high as Mitchell and Jessen and they live their lives daily, they take care of their children, they do whatever they do for their lives in the midst of torturing other human beings because of whatever circumstance it was. I mean, that to me is what’s glaring and all of this. And let me just stop there for a moment.

Julian Borger: No, absolutely. And the kind of way, the kind of banality of it all. They sold themselves as doing a job, they were psychologists and they framed it all in various kind of technical language. But this again reinforces, this impression that we got from the past week of hearings of how this came on from on high, because at one point in August, 2002, Mitchell believed that he brought Abu Zubaydah around. He did put him under enough of these enhanced interrogation techniques to make him compliant.

And he said, “Okay, we should stop now. We’ve done enough.” And there were these cables coming back from CIA headquarters saying, “No, we think you should carry on. Stay to the course.” And some messages coming from his superiors in Washington calling them pussies and calling their manhood into question and also putting the onus on them saying, “Well if there is another catastrophic attack on the US in which Americans die, well it’ll be on you.” And so this is how they drove, rationalized and justified the whole process. This conviction that these people, the people that they were torturing held this information that can save thousands of American lives.

Marc Steiner: Yeah, I know. Well foreign correspondence, military correspondence can have deep analysis, can also get very john just after years of watching this kind of stuff and reporting on it and seeing what happens to the human condition. But I wonder where you think this trial and this moment may lead us. Any possibilities of kind of changing the way we behave, changing the way governments behave. I mean I’m just curious where you think this might all take us over the next couple of years.

Julian Borger: I’m not all that optimistic that it is going to change minds. I mean we’ve been exposed to the realities of this now for several years and you only have to look at the spy museum where they bought up an exhibit on torture, describing what was done and waterboarding and these small boxes in which people were confined. And as part of the exhibit, they were these buttons you could press and it asked you if you thought that you could present or prevent another attack, would you carry out this torture. And the majority of the visitors of the museum pressed yes, the button saying yes, I would carry out these techniques.

Marc Steiner: Well, we’ll leave it there for the moment and I hope to talk to you very soon as this unfolds, even more and see what you find when you go back to Guantanamo, you and the others at The Guardian. First Julian before I said thank you, let me say thank you for all the work you’ve done, the reporting you’ve done all these years and thank you for taking your time with us at The Real News today.

Julian Borger: Thank you. A pleasure.

Marc Steiner: And I’m Marc Steiner of The Real News network. We will be doing more of this. We have to stay on top of it. Take care.


Marc Steiner

Managing Editor

Marc Steiner, interim co-Editor at TRNN, is a Peabody Award-winning journalist who has spent his life working on issues of social justice. He walked his first picket line at age 13 and at age 16 became the youngest person in Maryland arrested for Civil Rights protests, in the Freedom Rides through Cambridge. As part of the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, Marc helped organize poor white communities with the Young Patriots, the white Appalachian counterpart to the Black Panthers. Early in his career he counseled at-risk youth in therapeutic settings and founded a theater program in the Maryland State prison system. He also taught Theatre for 10 years at the Baltimore School for the Arts. From 1993 through 1997 his signature “Marc Steiner Show” aired on Baltimore’s public radio airwaves, both WYPR – which Marc co-founded – and Morgan State University’s WEAA.