More than eight years after President Obama formally ended the CIA’s torture program, the Trump administration is fighting to block the CIA’s new deputy director from providing a deposition about her role in pioneering the agency’s most abusive torture techniques.
The Trump administration appointed Gina Haspel as deputy director of the CIA in February, attracting criticism from human rights advocates due to her former role in abusive interrogations. The move was interpreted as a public sign of the administration’s approval for some of the CIA’s most brutal abuses after the 9/11 attacks.
Haspel is being called to provide a deposition by James Mitchell and John “Bruce” Jessen — two contract psychologists who made tens of millions of dollars for their work shaping the CIA’s torture program. The ACLU is suing Mitchell and Jessen on behalf of three former CIA detainees — one of whom died in captivity in 2002 after being beaten and doused with cold water.
Lawyers for Mitchell and Jessen claim that everything the psychologists did was authorized by the CIA, and that Haspel would confirm that if the court ordered her to give a deposition. Lawyers are also seeking numerous documents, and a deposition from James Cotsana — a retired CIA official whom Mitchell and Jessen identified as their direct supervisor.
Haspel ran a secret prison in Thailand in 2002, part of the CIA’s global network of “black sites.” That prison — codenamed “DETENTION SITE GREEN” by Senate investigators — was the site of the CIA’s first prisoner interrogations after the 9/11 attacks, and Haspel supervised them. She later took part in covering up the abuses, helping to destroy 92 videotapes of interrogations against the Senate’s wishes.
The Senate torture report does not mention Haspel by name, but details the role of the prison’s station chief in the horrific torture of detainee Abu Zubaydah, who the CIA waterboarded until he became “completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth.”
Mitchell and Jessen were the ones who waterboarded Zubaydah, and described the interrogation as “a template for future interrogations of high-value captives” in a cable to the CIA. Zubaydah’s interrogation was held up as a model, and similar techniques were used on many of the 119 detainees the CIA had in its custody.
In a hearing before a district court in Washington state on Friday, the government said that deposing Haspel and Cotsana would reveal “state secrets,” and that despite media reports, the government could not confirm or deny Haspel and Cotsana’s role in the program.
Dror Ladin, a staff attorney for the ACLU, argued that there’s no need to depose Haspel and Cotsana because it would not affect Mitchell and Jessen’s responsibility for torture. “It’s never been a defense in a torture or a war crimes case to say ‘I was following instructions,’” said Ladin. “This case has never been about that. It was about the design of the program, its testing on Abu Zubaydah, the use of those techniques on our clients.”
For more than a decade, the Bush and Obama administrations have used the state secrets privilege to block numerous lawsuits against government agencies and the architects of the torture program. To this day no victim of CIA torture has ever obtained compensation for their treatment.
The lawsuit against Mitchell and Jessen is the first torture lawsuit the Department of Justice did not try to block in its entirety. Although the government is not a direct party to the case, it is paying Mitchell and Jessen’s legal fees. Knowing they could face legal liability for their actions, the CIA provided Mitchell and Jessen with a multi-million dollar indemnification contract in 2007 – meaning that if they were sued for their actions, taxpayers would foot the bill.