Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

CIA Psychologists Settle Torture Case Acknowledging Abuses

  • Contractor psychologists reach accord with detainees who sued
  • ACLU calls case historic; Mitchell, Jessen deny responsibility

Two U.S. psychologists who helped design an overseas CIA interrogation program agreed to settle claims they were responsible for the torture of terrorism suspects, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, which brought the case.

The ACLU called the accord “historic” because it’s the first CIA-linked torture case of its kind that wasn’t dismissed, but said in a statement the terms of the settlement are confidential.

The case, which was set for a U.S. trial starting Sept. 5, focused on alleged abuses in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks at secret “black-site” facilities that operated under President George W. Bush. The lawsuit followed the 2014 release of a congressional report on Central Intelligence Agency interrogation techniques.

The claims against the psychologists, who worked as government contractors, were filed on behalf of two suspected enemy combatants who were later released and a third who died in custody as a result of hypothermia during his captivity. All three men were interrogated at a site in Afghanistan, according to the ACLU.

ACLU lawyer Dror Ladin has said the case was a novel attempt to use the 1789 Alien Tort Claims Act to fix blame on U.S. citizens for human-rights violations committed abroad, unlike previous cases brought against foreigners.

‘Cannot Hide’

“Government officials and contractors are on notice that they cannot hide from accountability for torture,” Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU National Security Project, said in Thursday’s statement. “Our clients’ groundbreaking case has changed the legal landscape. It showed that the courts are fully capable of handling lawsuits involving abuses committed in the name of national security.”

U.S. District Judge Justin Quackenbush in Spokane, Washington, urged both sides in July to negotiate a settlement when he ruled that neither the detainees nor the psychologists had provided enough decisive evidence for him to resolve key claims in their favor without a jury trial. There was no record of a settlement on the court docket Thursday morning.

The two psychologists, James Elmer Mitchell and John “Bruce” Jessen, were accused of aiding and abetting torture, war crimes and human experimentation. They denied wrongdoing. The CIA wasn’t a defendant in the case, but the government was covering the contractors’ legal expenses.

In Thursday’s joint statement with the ACLU, the psychologists acknowledged that the men who sued were subjected to coercive methods and abuses that “resulted in pain and suffering for them and their families.” They said it’s ”regrettable” that the men -- Suleiman Abdullah Salim, Mohamed Ahmed Ben Soud and Gul Rahman, the detainee who died in custody -- suffered abuses.

‘Not Responsible’

“Drs. Mitchell and Jessen assert that the abuses of Mr. Salim and Mr. Ben Soud occurred without their knowledge or consent and that they were not responsible for those actions,” according to the statement. “Drs. Mitchell and Jessen also assert that they were unaware of the specific abuses that ultimately caused Mr. Rahman’s death and are also not responsible for those actions.”

Read More: Torture Suit May Bedevil Trump Waterboarding Campaign Pledge

Mitchell and Jessen lost an earlier bid to get the case thrown out on grounds that as contractors who acted properly as agents of the government, they were immune from liability.

While some high-level CIA officials were questioned in the case, the psychologists were blocked from questioning the agency’s deputy director to show they were only following orders. Quackenbush ruled in May, at the urging of the Trump administration, that disclosure of the information they sought might compromise national security. The judge said there were enough publicly known details about the events in question for the case to proceed.

Mitchell and Jessen were accused of creating enhanced interrogation techniques including shutting the men in coffin-like boxes, striping them naked except for a diaper while they were left hanging by their arms, prolonged sleep deprivation and exposure to continuous loud music, according to court papers.

Records in the case show that the two psychologists and the company they formed were paid $81 million by the CIA as part of a multi-year contract with the government. In 2002, the two personally interrogated a so-called high-value prisoner, Abu Zubaydah, using their techniques, including waterboarding. The psychologists’ methods were then standardized by the CIA throughout the secret detainee holding facilities, according to the plaintiffs.

A 2014 report by the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence detailed the history of the program developed by Mitchell and Jessen and determined that their techniques produced no usable intelligence.

Mitchell stood by his actions in his 2016 book, “Enhanced Interrogation, Inside the Minds and Motives of the Islamic Terrorists Trying to Destroy America.”

Mitchell said he was asked after the Sept. 11 attacks not only to create the program for “rough interrogation techniques,” but also to conduct the interviews. He was told another deadly attack might come at any time.

“I concluded that conducting coercive interrogations on a small number of Islamic terrorists who were actively withholding information that could disrupt a potentially catastrophic attack was justified as long as those methods were lawful, authorized, and carefully monitored,” he wrote.

The case is Salim v. Mitchell, 15-cv-00286, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Washington (Spokane).

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