Court Rules ACLU Lawsuit Against CIA Torture Psychologists Can Proceed

ACLU case filed on behalf of three CIA torture victims

SPOKANE, Wash. — In a decision that is unprecedented for a lawsuit involving CIA torture, a federal judge said he would allow a lawsuit against the two psychologists who designed and implemented the CIA program to move forward.

The case was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of three men — Gul Rahman, Suleiman Abdullah Salim, and Mohamed Ahmed Ben Soud — who were tortured using methods developed by the CIA-contracted psychologists, James Mitchell and John “Bruce” Jessen.

Announcing his ruling from the bench at a hearing on the psychologists’ motion to dismiss, U.S. District Court Senior Judge Justin Quackenbush gave attorneys in the case 30 days to come up with a plan for discovery, a first in a lawsuit concerning CIA torture.

“This is a historic win in the fight to hold the people responsible for torture accountable for their despicable and unlawful actions,” said ACLU staff attorney Dror Ladin, who argued the case in court. “Thanks to this unprecedented ruling, CIA victims will be able to call their torturers to account in court for the first time.”

The judge said he would deny the psychologists’ motion, which argued that the lawsuit should be dismissed because the judiciary could not consider the case because it is a “political question” for only the executive and legislative branches to decide. Mitchell and Jessen also argued that they have immunity from lawsuits because they were working as government contractors.

Until this ruling, every lawsuit trying to hold people accountable for the CIA torture program was dismissed before reaching the merits because the government successfully argued that letting the cases proceed would reveal state secrets. But earlier this month, in an unprecedented move, the Justice Department filed a “statement of interest” in the case but specifically did not invoke the state-secrets privilege.

To the contrary, the government indicated that it would be open to the case proceeding to discovery if certain information is off limits, such as the identities of covert CIA operatives. The ACLU said it believes it can come to an agreement with the Justice Department on a set of procedures for information that is not relevant to the lawsuit.

The torture endured by the plaintiffs was detailed in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s landmark report on CIA torture. The U.S. has never charged or accused the victims of any crime. One of them was tortured to death, and the other two are now free.

Mitchell and Jessen helped convince the agency to adopt torture as official policy, making millions of dollars in the process. The two men, who previously worked for the U.S. military, designed the torture methods and performed illegal human experimentation on CIA prisoners to test and refine the program. They personally took part in torture sessions and oversaw the program’s implementation for the CIA.

Torture methods devised by Mitchell and Jessen and inflicted on the three men include slamming them into walls, stuffing them inside coffin-like boxes, exposing them to extreme temperatures and ear-splitting levels of music, starving them, inflicting various kinds of water torture, depriving them of sleep for days, and chaining them in stress positions designed for pain and to keep them awake for days on end. The two victims who survived still suffer physically and psychologically from the effects of their torture.

The plaintiffs include the family of Gul Rahman, who died because of torture. He was an Afghan refugee living in Pakistan with his wife and their four daughters, making a living selling wood to fellow residents of their refugee camp. An autopsy and internal CIA review found the cause of death to be hypothermia caused “in part by being forced to sit on the bare concrete floor without pants” with contributing factors of “dehydration, lack of food, and immobility due to ‘short chaining.’” The family has never been officially notified of his death, and his body has never been returned to them for burial.

Another plaintiff is Suleiman Abdullah Salim, a fisherman from Tanzania. The U.S. military released him five years after his abduction with a letter acknowledging that he poses no threat to the United States. He now lives in Zanzibar with his wife and his young daughter.

The third plaintiff is Mohamed Ahmed Ben Soud. He fled his native Libya in 1991, fearing persecution for his opposition to Muammar Gadhafi’s dictatorship. In 2003, Ben Soud was captured in a joint U.S.-Pakistani raid on his home and sent to two secret CIA prisons in Afghanistan, where he was held and tortured for over two years. Ben Soud saw Mitchell in the first of these prisons, later identifying him as a man present in a room where CIA interrogators were torturing him by forcibly submerging him in ice water. Ben Soud was freed in 2011 after Gadhafi was deposed, and he now lives with his wife and three children.

In addition to torturing prisoners themselves, Mitchell and Jessen trained and supervised other CIA personnel in their methods. In 2005, they founded a company — Mitchell, Jessen & Associates — that the CIA contracted with to run its entire torture program, including supplying interrogators and security for black sites and rendition operations. According to the Senate report, the government paid the company $81 million over several years. The CIA let Mitchell and Jessen themselves evaluate the effectiveness of their torture in “breaking” detainees, and the agency has since admitted that this was a mistake.

Citing experiments conducted on dogs in the 1960s, Mitchell and Jessen proposed to the CIA a program based on the intentional infliction of intense pain and suffering, both physical and mental. In the 1960s’ experiments, dogs were subjected to random electric shocks, and they eventually collapsed into a passive state termed “learned helplessness.” According to Mitchell and Jessen’s theory, if humans were psychologically destroyed through torture and abuse, they would become totally unable to resist demands for information.

The CIA adopted Mitchell and Jessen’s proposals, and in August of 2002, the agency secured Justice Department authorization in the so-called “torture memos,” which were later rescinded by the Justice Department.

The lawsuit was filed in federal court in Washington State, where Mitchell, Jessen & Associates was based and where Jessen still lives. The plaintiffs are suing Mitchell and Jessen under the Alien Tort Statute — which allows federal lawsuits for gross human rights violations — for their commission of torture; cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment; non-consensual human experimentation; and war crimes.

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