TAMPA (FOX 13) - The moment the second hijacked airliner hit the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, James Mitchell knew the United States was under attack.
"It was just clear that it was an attack at that point. The first one you think, 'Oh, maybe it was a mistake.' Second one, it was obvious," Mitchell said in an interview with FOX 13.
The Air Force psychologist had retired just a month before, and had taken a few contracting gigs with the CIA. But 9/11 was a turning point that would change life as he knew it.
"I called my handler at the agency who was my contract manager and said, I don’t know what I can do, but I’d like to be a part of the solution," he recalled.
He was tasked with taking what he knew about resistance training to create an interrogation program for high-value detainees that included sleep deprivation, wall slamming, and waterboarding.
Mitchell knew in taking this post, there was no turning back.
"I knew I wasn’t going to be a psychologist anymore," he said. "That once I did the interrogations, the idea that I was going to be some doctor-level person that provided any kind of mental health services was just out the window. I had a higher moral obligation to save hundreds, maybe thousands of American lives than I did to protect the temporary discomfort of the terrorists who had voluntarily taken up arms to kill Americans."
That included Khalid Sheik Mohammed, or KSM, who claimed he planned the attack from "A to Z.”
"KSM is a savant when it comes to planning attacks," Mitchell said. "You have to remember that he has an engineering degree from the U.S. So he’s a very bright man. He had other options in life rather than being a terrorist. But he’s essentially been making mischief one way or another that cost people their lives forever. He’s very bright, but he’s evil."
In his book that details the interrogations, Mitchell calls KSM the devil and the diva.
"He’s incredibly charming," he said. "Remarkably charming. Some people will call me a heretic for saying this, but there were times when I enjoyed talking to him. Because we talked about his religion motivating him to do what he’d do, we talked about why eventually he thought they’d beat the United States, and these were conversations I’d had not while I was interrogating him, but when we were just spending time with them because we didn’t want them to be by themselves all of the time."
And there was no time to let memories of the attacks trickle into Mitchell's methods.
"You really can’t engage in those kinds of thoughts for a couple of reasons," he said. "One is, KSM told me that the grief the infidel experiences is like sweet wine to his god. So there’s no way I would show that man some of the things bother me as much as it did."
Mitchell would spend months getting inside the mind of the alleged co-conspirator, obtaining intelligence he says thwarted Al Qaeda’s second wave of attacks.
THE LOOMING SECOND WAVE
Dr. James Mitchell says, when he first began interrogating high-value detainees at CIA black sites, he thought about the nearly 3,000 lives lost on September 11, 2001.
“In the beginning, I did. You know, I still tear up from time to time when I think about 9/11. Particularly when I think about the people jumping to their death, or burning up,” Mitchell said. “But when you’re doing the interrogation, it’s disruptive.”
He couldn’t let it get in the way of obtaining intelligence about a second attack Al Qaeda was planning.
“It was pretty clear from the way the CIA was monitoring things, that they knew they were planning a follow-up attack,” he said. “They didn’t know the timeline, where it was on the horizon. They didn’t know exactly who was going to do it. But there was enough chatter and enough threat indicators to suggest it was looming, if not imminent.”
Mitchell says President George W. Bush had reason to believe the attack involved the use of a nuclear weapon, and he was determined to thwart it.
“President Bush just said, ‘We’re not going to let them set off a nuclear weapon in one of our cities,’” Mitchell said. “We will do anything and everything to stop that attack -- that’s legal.”
That included enhanced interrogation techniques like the controversial waterboarding, which, contrary to public perception, was rarely used.
“Three people were waterboarded,” Mitchell said. “Khalid Sheik Mohammed, Rahim al Nasihri (alleged to be the mastermind of the bombing of USS Cole in 2000) and Abu Zubaydah.”
They were three of the most dangerous terrorists in the world. Mitchell says KSM was subjected to enhanced interrogation methods for a short amount of time, relative to his entire time at the black sites.
“[KSM] had maybe three weeks, but went on to do another 1,200-something days of being relatively cooperative with us,” he said.
Critics called some of the interrogation techniques, like waterboarding, “torture.” A report by the Senate Intelligence Committee, headed by Senator Diane Feinstein, found they weren't an effective means of acquiring intelligence or gaining cooperation from detainees.
Mitchell says the report is flat wrong.
“She can rewrite history any way she wants to, but the facts stand the way that they do,” he said. “I know they like to pretend that they didn't, but they provided information that allowed us stop that second wave of attacks. And that was critical.”
HOW AMERICA WILL BE DEFEATED, ACCORDING TO KHALID SHEIK MOHAMMED
In the days after 9/11, the U.S. government believed a second wave of terror attacks was on the way.
“It felt like we were in a running street battle with Al Qaeda,” recalled Mitchell. “They had just killed 3,000 people. The president had reason to believe they were going to use a nuclear weapon this time.”
The government had turned to Mitchell to create and conduct the enhanced interrogation methods, like waterboarding, on high-value terrorist detainees.
“You wouldn’t believe how much time I spent with these guys,” Mitchell continued.
Seventeen years later, Mitchell says, Al Qaeda has failed to pull off another large-scale attack simply because they cannot.
"The reason we’re going to these lone wolf attacks now, is because we’re better at monitoring the large attacks,” he said.
Mitchell said Khalid Sheik Mohammed still wants to see American civilization destroyed, but believes our death will come from within.
“He said the real way it was going to happen, if he was going to be completely honest, was through immigration and lone wolf attacks,” Mitchell said. ”That because we allow people into our country without vetting them very well, and they’re allowed to establish parallel societies that allow them to pursue Sharia [Law] to whatever level they can pursue it, it’s going to put in place the networks that allows these folks to operate among our midst.”
Today, Khalid Sheik Mohammed remains at the U.S. Navy base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, alongside four other co-defendants in the case. The case against the five alleged co-conspirators still has not been brought to trial.
Mitchell says that’s unfair to the 9/11 families who were promised justice.
For KSM, dragging out the legal process fits in with what he believes is in God’s plan -- to just wait it out, Mitchell says, until America surrenders to Sharia Law.
“He said it isn’t necessary to defeat us; it’s only necessary for them to continue to fight long enough for us to defeat ourselves,” Mitchell added. “KSM said that we will eventually quit trying to resist fighting Sharia and America will then offer her neck to us for slaughter. That's what he said.”