A CIVIL SUIT against the architects of the CIA’s torture program, psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, will be allowed to proceed, a federal judge in Spokane, Washington, decided on Friday.
District Judge Justin Quackenbush denied the pair’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit launched against them on behalf of three victims, one dead, of the brutal tactics they designed.
“This is amazing, this is unprecedented,” Steven Watt, a senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union representing the plaintiffs, told The Intercept after the hearing. “This is the first step towards accountability.”
What’s so unprecedented is that this is the first time opponents of the program will have the chance to seek discovery evidence in the case unimpeded by the government. In every other past torture accountability lawsuit, the government has invoked its special state-secrets privileges to purportedly protect national security.
But since the extraordinarily detailed and revealing executive summary of the Senate’s torture report was published in 2014, after years of investigation, the government now says almost everything is declassified already.
The three plaintiffs are Suleiman Abdullah Salim, Mohamed Ahmed Ben Soud, and the estate of Gul Rahman, who died at a CIA black site known as the “Salt Pit.” Each was kidnapped and subjected to extreme physical and psychological torture and experimentation, though none was ever charged with a crime.
The two living plaintiffs were not at the hearing, but Watt said he was thrilled to text his client Abdullah Salim, now living in Tanzania, the good news. “When I first met with him, I told him the likelihood we’d get as far as we have so far was highly unlikely. To tell him that we won today — you know, it’s historic.”
Mitchell and Jessen’s proposed framework for “enhanced interrogation” involved trying to drive detainees to a state of “learned helplessness” through unbearable suffering, to the point they would be willing to totally comply. The theories behind the tactics were drawn from the psychologists’ experiments on dogs decades prior.
The defendants were not present at the hearing either, but their lawyers argued that Mitchell and Jessen were not directly involved in, and therefore are not responsible for, the victims’ capture and treatment. “They did not make decisions about Plaintiffs’ capture, treatment, confinement conditions, and interrogations; and they did not perform, supervise or control Plaintiffs’ interrogations,” defense attorney Christopher Tompkins argued in a brief filed in the case.
Dror Ladin, the ACLU attorney who argued in court at Friday’s hearing, argued that Mitchell and Jessen directly composed and supervised the program, and were paid to do so for years — and therefore should not escape responsibility, according to Guardian reporter Maria L La Ganga, who blogged the hearing live.