WASHINGTON — Two psychologists who designed and helped oversee the CIA’s harsh interrogation program are now facing a lawsuit filed on behalf of three former CIA prisoners who allegedly were tortured at “black site,” or secret, prisons.
James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen are former U.S. Air Force trainers whose expertise was in teaching military members how to resist interrogations if captured.
The CIA paid their company, Mitchell Jessen & Associates, $81 million to act as contractors to help run the interrogation program, according to a Senate intelligence committee report issued last year.
The lawsuit filed Tuesday in federal court in Washington state is on behalf of the family of Gul Rahman, an Afghan man who died while in CIA custody; Suleiman Abdullah Salim, a Tanzanian man who was held in U.S. custody in Afghanistan for five years before being released; and Mohamed Ahmed Ben Soud, a Libyan man who was held by the U.S. in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005 before the CIA sent him to Libya, where Moammar Gadhafi’s regime imprisoned him until 2011.
The three men are among the prisoners whose detentions were discussed in the Senate report last year.
The lawsuit accuses Mitchell and Jessen of human rights violations by committing torture, cruel and inhuman treatment, and war crimes.
ACLU files lawsuit
The lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union is largely based on findings from the 500-page executive summary of the Senate report, which reignited debate about the CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques on suspected al Qaeda members in the years following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The CIA has disavowed the techniques as a mistake of the past, but says the program was effective in protecting the nation and helping provide key information that still informs what the U.S. knows about the workings of al Qaeda.
Senate Democrats who prepared the report say the program produced little but bad information from detainees who were desperate to stop their torture.
Steven Watt, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU Human Rights Program, said Mitchell and Jessen sold their program to the CIA as “scientifically based, safe and proven, when in fact it was none of those things. The program was unlawful and its methods barbaric.”
Mitchell has defended his conduct in interviews with CNN and other news organizations. In a CNN interview last year, he called the Senate report a “partisan pile of crap” and said, “I’m perfectly willing to be responsible for everything I’ve done. I don’t want to be held responsible for anything I haven’t done.”
In an interview with The New York Times last year, he portrayed himself as only reluctantly agreeing to participate in the harshest aspects of the CIA program because of pressure to stop potential plots after 9/11.
“I went through my ethical obligations, and decided for me, the least worst choice was to help save American lives,” he said.
Jessen hasn’t spoken publicly about his alleged role.
Under the terms of their contract with the CIA, the government is required to pay for their defense.
The Obama administration also is likely to face a decision on whether intervene in the lawsuit because, despite the release of the Senate report executive summary, much of the CIA program remains classified. In the past, the government has sought to use its state secrets privilege to block lawsuits that dealt with secret aspects of the CIA program.
A site known as the Salt Pit
The Senate report and U.S. officials familiar with the Senate probe said Rahman was tortured at a CIA site code-named Cobalt and known by CIA employees as the Salt Pit. Jessen and CIA employees were among those who participated in Rahman’s interrogation, according to the Senate report and the lawsuit.
A CIA review cited in the Senate report said Rahman likely died from hypothermia, “in part from being forced to sit on the bare concrete floor without pants.” The report said “dehydration, lack of food, and immobility due to ‘short chaining'” contributed to his death.
Rahman’s wife and daughters have never been officially notified by the U.S. of his death, nor has his body been returned to them, the lawsuit says.
Salim was captured in Somalia in a joint CIA-Kenyan operation and eventually taken to the Salt Pit site in Afghanistan. There he endured techniques such as prolonged sleep deprivation, nudity while being doused with cold water, being dressed in a diaper, being confined in small boxes and being thrown against a wall, according to the Senate report.
Salim now lives in Zanzibar, Tanzania, and according to a statement released by the ACLU, said of his five-year imprisonment and the role of Mitchell and Jessen: “The terrible torture I suffered at the hands of the CIA still haunts me. I still have flashbacks.”
He continued, “This lawsuit is about achieving justice. No person should ever have to endure the horrors that these two men inflicted.”
Ben Soud was involved in an anti-Ghadafi group and fled to Pakistan in the 1990s. He was captured in a CIA-Pakistani operation and taken to black sites in Afghanistan, the Senate report and the lawsuit say.
“We are still suffering from those psychological and psychical illnesses that we were afflicted with in prison,” Ben Soud said in a short documentary on the two men prepared by the ACLU.
Ben Soud identified Mitchell as being present at some of his interrogation sessions, according to the lawsuit.
He was subjected to prolonged sleep deprivation, thrown against a wall, confined to small boxes and was partially submerged in cold water until a doctor determined that his body temperature was dangerously low, according to the Senate report.
After two years in CIA custody, Ben Soud was sent to Libya, where the government sentenced him to life in prison. He was freed when Ghadafi was deposed, and he now lives in Misrata, Libya.
The Justice Department has investigated the harsh interrogation program three times — including the roles of Mitchell, Jessen and CIA and Justice officials who worked to approve the interrogation tactics — but concluded it couldn’t prosecute. The department reached that decision in part because doing so would expose a classified program and because those who used the tactics had the backing of Justice Department memos authorizing the techniques.
According to the Senate report, the program Mitchell and Jessen designed for the CIA shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks was aimed at defeating any training al Qaeda members had to resist interrogations.
The techniques were based on 1960s experiments used on dogs to induce a passive state known as “learned helplessness.”
According to the complaint and the Senate report, Mitchell theorized that humans subjected to similar treatment would be also be induced into “learned helplessness” and be unable to resist interrogation.
The Justice Department endorsed the techniques in a series of memos beginning in 2002; the memos were later rescinded near the end of the George W. Bush administration.