Two former detainees and the family of a third who died in custody filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the American psychologists who designed the CIA’s torture techniques, in the first legal action to rely on the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation of the government’s interrogation program.
The plaintiffs accused James Elmer Mitchell and John “Bruce” Jessen of torture, cruel and degrading punishment, war crimes and conducting an “experimental torture program” as part of a “joint criminal enterprise” with the nation’s top intelligence agency.
The pair earned more than $80 million for developing a set of brutal interrogation methods, including simulated drowning known as waterboarding, beatings, starvation and confinement in “coffin-like boxes,” for supervising their use on detainees in secret overseas CIA prisons and for personally applying them to detainees, according to the suit.
“Mitchell and Jessen conspired with the CIA to torture these three men and many others,” said Steven Watt, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union Human Rights Program. “They claimed that their program was scientifically based, safe and proven, when in fact it was none of those things. The program was unlawful and its methods barbaric.”
The ACLU-led lawsuit was brought in U.S. District Court in Washington state – Jessen and Mitchell founded a firm in Spokane that the CIA contracted to run the program – and seeks unspecified monetary damages for each plaintiff. The two survivors still suffer serious psychological and physical problems as a result of the abuses they underwent, the lawsuit said.
The action was brought on behalf of Suleiman Abdullah Salim, a Tanzanian fisherman and trader who was abducted from Somalia, and Mohammad Ahmed Ben Soud, a former Libyan opposition activist who was seized in Pakistan. Neither was ever charged with a crime.
The third plaintiff is a relative of Gul Rahman, an Afghan who died in CIA custody in November 2002 from suspected hypothermia and other complications after being “slapped, punched and dragged naked, hooded and bound,” doused in cold water and left in freezing temperatures. His family was never notified of his death and was never given his body.
A CIA spokesman declined to comment and Mitchell didn’t return a telephone call. Jessen could not immediately be reached for comment.
The lawsuit represents a new approach to seeking accountability for the CIA’s Rendition, Detention and Interrogation program. It is the first to rely extensively on the Senate Intelligence Committee’s five-year, $40 million investigation into the agency’s top-secret effort to unearth terrorist plots after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
“This is the first attempt to bring some justice to the survivors of torture since the Senate's report,” Watt said in an interview. “The victims deserve an apology and some sort of accountability to help them recover from what they were put through.”
The lawsuit also cited the CIA’s official response to the Senate report, a 2004 declassified CIA inspector general’s report and a review of the torture program by the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility.
Previous suits filed by former detainees were brought against the CIA. All were thrown out after the government cited official immunity and the state secrets privilege – a government claim that contends the disclosure of certain evidence would harm national security.
While the Senate report detailed the roles of CIA officers, Jessen and Mitchell may be the only key participants in the torture program held accountable if the plaintiffs prevail in their lawsuit.
Their participation in the program led the American Psychological Association to vote in August to ban psychologists from participating in national security interrogations.
The Senate report found that the program, authorized by former President George W. Bush, failed to generate any significant information on terrorist plots and that the CIA misrepresented the results of the brutal interrogation techniques to the Bush administration, Congress and the public.
Salim, Ben Soud and Rahman were among 39 people identified by name in the Senate report, which was released Dec. 9, 2014, as undergoing what the agency called enhanced interrogation techniques.
Mitchell, former Bush administration officials and the CIA rejected the committee’s findings. They denied using torture, asserting that the interrogation methods were legal and produced information that helped disrupt terrorist attacks and led the agency to Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan, where he died in a May 2, 2011, U.S. special forces raid.
“I’m just a guy who got asked to do something for his country by people at the highest level of the government and I did the best that I could,” Mitchell said in an April 2014 interview with Britain’s The Guardian newspaper.
The two psychologists were involved with a U.S. military program that teaches service members how to evade capture and resist torture. They developed their methods for grilling detainees after the CIA asked them in December 2001 to review an al Qaida document recovered by British police that outlined strategies for resisting interrogations.
The pair “proposed a pseudo-scientific theory of countering resistance that justified the use of torture,” said the lawsuit, adding that they based their approach on studies in which dogs were induced into helplessness and passivity through “random and repeated electric shocks.”
They first personally applied their techniques to Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn, a senior al Qaida operative who used the nom de guerre Abu Zubaida and was captured in Pakistan in March 2002.
Mitchell and Jessen, who had no training or experience as interrogators, used the detainee’s capture as an “opportunity to test (their) ‘learned helplessness theory.’”
The lawsuit described in horrifying detail the accounts given by Salim and Ben Soud of their abductions, detentions and interrogations in secret CIA prisons in which they were held – Salim for 17 months and Ben Soud for 28 months – in Afghanistan. Doctors monitored their conditions while the pair was abused.
Both were stripped, starved and held in darkness while being chained and suspended from ceilings by their arms, the lawsuit said.
They were subjected to sleep deprivation, loud music, beatings and cramped confinement in large and small boxes, said the lawsuit. Salim “became so hopeless and despondent,” it said, that he attempted suicide with painkillers that he was given for broken fingers that he sustained during his CIA abduction.
Salim repeatedly was doused with freezing water. Ben Soud underwent “water torture” in which he was stripped, “placed in the center of a large plastic sheet” and partially submerged in ice-cold water.
Ben Soud also claimed he was subjected to a waterboarding-like technique in which he was strapped to a wooden board that could spin 360 degrees. Cold water was poured over his body and his head covered in a hood, said the lawsuit, which included a sketch Ben Soud made of the device.