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Man Who Designed CIA Interrogation Program Testifies At Guantánamo Bay

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Today in a courtroom in Guantanamo Bay, an American interrogator who waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was called to the stand to testify. He is one of two men who designed the CIA's program to torture alleged terrorists, and it is the first time either have described their role publicly under oath.

Sacha Pfeiffer of NPR's Investigations team is watching today in Cuba, and she joins us now.

Welcome.

SACHA PFEIFFER, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: So first, let's just be clear here. This is not the actual 9/11 trial. Right? These are just pretrial hearings happening currently.

PFEIFFER: Yes. The 9/11 trial is not scheduled to start until January 2021, but pretrial hearings in the 9/11 case have been going on for years. And the pretrial stage is when lawyers hash out legal issues that need to be resolved before a trial can begin.

Now, the pretrial hearings happening for the next two weeks at Guantanamo are expected to be pretty dramatic, and that's because these two American psychologists who are being called as witnesses helped design, as you said, the torture techniques that the CIA used on terrorism suspects. Their names are Jim Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, and they had a company that was paid $80 million by the U.S. government for that work.

CHANG: Wow. And explain why these two men in particular are being called as witnesses today.

PFEIFFER: Because the judge in the 9/11 case has to decide whether statements that the 9/11 defendants gave to the FBI can be used at trial. The CIA also got statements, but the CIA statements cannot be used at trial because they're tainted by torture. The FBI got statements later without using torture. But defense attorneys say that once you've tortured someone, you cannot trust anything they tell any interrogator because they're going to tell the interrogator whatever they think the interrogator wants to hear. So defense attorneys hope that by putting Mitchell and Jessen on the stand, that will support their case that the FBI statement should be barred from trial.

CHANG: OK. So I understand that Jim Mitchell was the first witness. What has happened since he took the stand?

PFEIFFER: Now, this is just Day 1. But so far, he's been feisty. He's been on the offensive rather than the defensive - pretty argumentative. He's clearly not happy to be here. He wrote a book, and he gave a previous deposition in a lawsuit. And we know from those and from his demeanor today that he is angry about how the CIA treated him. He feels like at first, he was viewed as this heroic, patriotic figure helping protect the country by pressuring terrorists for information, and then he became a pariah. After the torture became public, the CIA began shutting it out - him out. It canceled his government contract. He now feels like he's getting blamed for everything.

Now, this afternoon, he described the climate of fear in the United States after 9/11. And he said, while torture might look bad and immoral now, at the time it felt necessary. He said he was told that the country had to be gloves off. And when he was asked by a defense attorney what that meant, he said it means do whatever was legal to get information.

CHANG: So as we mentioned, Mitchell and Jessen were involved in designing the CIA torture program. What exactly was their role?

PFEIFFER: They took a training program meant to teach U.S. military members to resist capture and resist torture, and they reverse-engineered it. So they took those methods to force prisoners to answer questions, methods like waterboarding. Now, Mitchell and Jessen say those methods were meant to be uncomfortable more than painful. But they acknowledge that some interrogations got out of control, and they say it's not their fault that other interrogators used their interrogation techniques incorrectly.

CHANG: OK. So you say that there are two weeks of these pretrial proceedings. What more can we expect in the courtroom?

PFEIFFER: It's possible that Jim Mitchell could consume the entire two weeks on the stand. There's another hearing scheduled for February. If they don't get to Bruce Jessen in the next two weeks, Jessen will be called back in February. And a lot of information that defense attorneys want is - the government wants it to be classified. So it's unclear how much we'll get to hear in open court.

CHANG: That is NPR's Sacha Pfeiffer. She will be monitoring the proceedings from Guantanamo Bay all week long.

Thank you, Sacha.

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