Moral Low Ground

US Government

Federal Judge Allows CIA Torture Victims to Sue Interrogation Contractors

Mitchell (L) and Jessen

Mitchell (L) and Jessen

Victims of a Central Intelligence Agency torture program may proceed with a civil lawsuit against the psychologists who were paid tens of millions of dollars to instruct agency operatives how to break detainees during interrogation.

The Guardian reports Senior Judge Justin L. Quackenbush of the Eastern District of Washington said he would deny a request from James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen to throw out a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on behalf of some of the men tortured under a regimen devised by the two psychologists.

“I don’t think I have any other choice,” said Quackenbush. “I cannot summarily dismiss the complaint plaintiffs have filed. It’s thorough to say the least. On its face, the complaint alleges not only aiding and abetting but participation and complicity in the administration of this enhanced interrogation program.”

One of the men named in the lawsuit, suspected Afghan militant Gul Rahman, died in 2002 while shackled to a wall in near-freezing temperatures at the “Salt Pit,” a notorious secret CIA prison north of Kabul.

Another, Tanzanian fisherman Suleiman Abdullah Salim, was abducted in 2003 and sent via extraordinary rendition to the CIA’s secret COBALT prison in Afghanistan and subjected to what the lawsuit calls “severe physical and mental pain” before he was released in 2008 with a document confirming he had “been determined to pose no threat to the United States Armed Forces or its interests in Afghanistan.”

The third plaintiff, Mohamed Ahmed Ben Soud, is a Libyan captured in Pakistan in 2003 and also rendered first to COBALT then to a second secret CIA prison in Afghanistan codenamed ORANGE. He was subjected to torture and other abuse while in US custody before being rendered to Libya in 2005. He was imprisoned by the Gaddafi regime and was only released after it was overthrown in 2011.

“This has never happened before,” ACLU attorney Hina Shamsi told reporters outside the courtroom following the hearing. “There have been so many cases brought by torture victims… and not one of them has been able to go forward, for shameful reasons. This is a very big deal for our clients.”

The three plaintiffs were named in the nearly 500-page summary of the 2014 Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” program. The report detailed illegal and sometimes deadly abuse and brutality inflicted upon terrorism suspects and innocent detainees in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, including rape, beatings, exposure to lethal extremes in temperature, severe sleep deprivation and being forced to stand on broken legs and feet.

Mitchell and Jessen were also named in the report. Their firm, Mitchell Jessen and Associates, was paid $81 million for interrogation services even thought the Senate report noted that “neither psychologist had any experience as an interrogator, nor did either have specialized knowledge of al-Qaeda, a background in counterterrorism, or any relevant cultural or linguistic expertise.”

Mitchell has defended the role of psychologists in torturing detainees. “The CIA did what it was asked to do,” he told Real Clear Politics. “People forget what it was like after 9/11. They forget that there was all this talk about [al-Qaeda] bringing in atomic weapons or trying to get chemical weapons.”

Last year, the independent Hoffman report found that officials of the American Psychological Association (APA) “colluded with Department of Defense officials to, at the least, adopt and maintain APA ethics policies that were not more restrictive than the guidelines that key DOD officials wanted. APA chose its ethics policy based on its goals of helping DOD, managing its public relations and maximizing the growth of the profession.”

While the Senate report’s revelations have surprised many psychologists, psychological operations have long been a part of America’s non-conventional arsenal, and mental health professionals have a long history of complicity and participation in some of the worst human rights crimes in US history.

Correction: This article originally stated that the Senate torture report found that APA officials colluded with the Pentagon. The independent Hoffman report reached such a conclusion, not the Senate report.

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