WASHINGTON – 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. The two detainees still suffer psychological and physical problems as a result of their treatment, 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. Previous suits were brought against the CIA. All were thrown out after the government cited official immunity and the state secrets privilege.