Enhanced Interrogation: Inside the Minds and Motives of the Islamic Terrorists Trying to Destroy America

Thursday, April 13, 2017 - 10:30am

By James E. Mitchell and Bill Harlow (Crown Forum 2016, 310 Pages)

A book cover with a single chair in front of a dark background illuminated by a single lamp giving it a blue hue with white text



For anyone who lived through the disclosures of U.S. interrogation practices and outcomes in the mid-late 2000s, it was one of the more shocking events to come out of the Bush administration.  There was strong evidence that men and women in the US Military and intelligence agencies had been engaging in immoral and generally illegal actions to interrogate captives.  James Mitchell, one of the central creators of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation technique (EIT) protocols, would mostly disagree with this assessment.

Mitchell walks readers through the process by which he began working with the CIA and put together the EIT protocols for the CIAs detainee interrogation program.  He provides concise definitions and descriptions of EITs as well as in-depth descriptions of how he proceeded with interrogation procedures as part of the CIA program, including safeguards he and his partner specifically put in place for detainee safety.  Few sources have the firsthand experience of interacting with high-level al-Qaeda operatives, like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, with whom Mitchell himself interacted, and even fewer provide the same level of detail.  Mitchell also talks specifically about how intelligence gathered in these interrogation sessions helped the U.S. succeed in finding terrorists and thwarting their plots.

Unfortunately, about a third of the book is spent vindicating himself and the interrogation program from various federal investigations while also airing his own political grievances.  Mitchell clearly takes the investigations into all U.S. interrogation methods personally and feels wronged in how they’ve been presented and perceived.  He repeatedly talks about the “witch hunts” being a disservice to those “who saved American lives” and defended the U.S. against “Islamic Terrorists who want to destroy our way of life,” without realizing most of his story shows repeatedly that he is the exception that proves the rule.

For example, Mitchell shows in detail that the Department of Defense interrogation program as separate from the CIA’s.  This is accurate, but Mitchell makes the distinction to primarily criticize investigators for not recognizing this fact rather than the DoD for not taking the same precautions he did.  Mitchell also repeatedly reminds readers that what he did was always signed off on by Bush administration lawyers.  This is cold comfort given the poor constitutional record of these lawyers in other matters.  Mitchell also tends to make overly technical arguments in his defense.  It’s difficult to accept some of his complaints of bias when he dismisses criticisms of water boarding by focusing on the miscounting of incidents—NGO reports counted the number of water pours, not the number of times a detainee was strapped to the water board.  For those concerned about the treatment of detainees, this is not a distinction that helps his case.

Why is this relevant?  

Even though I disagree with Mitchell’s attempt to equate al-Qaeda and ISIS, there is no doubt that the U.S. is going to continue engaging with terrorist organizations.  Having a more complete picture of what has gone before will be critical for the public to fully appreciate the policies that have been and will be put in place when dealing with captured members of these terrorist organizations.  This book is not perfect, but it does add to that effort.

Who should be reading this?  

Anyone interested in a bit more context to the U.S.’ interrogation methods and the focus behind them should read most of this book.  Regardless of your politics, the first two-thirds are some of the most honest, first-person discussion of methods and process at CIA black sites out there, and is definitely valuable for those interested in the topic.