Guantanamo survivors sue psychologists who designed CIA torture program

© Brendan McDermid
The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit on behalf of three former Guantanamo detainees against two psychologists responsible for creating and overseeing the CIA’s torture program at the US naval base in Cuba.

From 2001 to 2010, psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen took in almost $85 million in CIA contracts to create interrogation techniques to be used on terror suspects Guantanamo Bay detention camp. They now face a federal lawsuit for their role in convincing the CIA to subject the prisoners to “enhanced interrogation techniques” such as waterboarding, bodily contortions and sleep deprivation. The psychologists’ contract continued until 2009, when President Obama signed an executive order that ended the enhanced interrogation program.

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The suit was filed by the ACLU on Tuesday in a federal court in Washington state on behalf of Gul Rahman, Suleiman Adbullah Salim and Mohamed Abded Soud, three of the 119 prisoners who endured torture at Guantanamo. Rahman died at a CIA black site as a result of the techniques used on him, so the ACLU is representing his estate. Salim and Soud were never charged with a crime, but suffer long-term physical and psychological effects stemming from their treatment during captivity. The three parties seek compensatory damages of at least $75,000.

The plaintiffs argue that Mitchell and Jessen, charged professionally as psychologists, are guilty of ordering “torture, cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment; non-consensual human experimentation; and war crimes, all of which violate well-established norms of customary international law.”

The suit characterizes the torture program as a “war crime” and a “joint criminal enterprise” and from which Mitchell and Jessen financially profited.

“These psychologists devised and supervised an experiment to degrade human beings and break their bodies and minds,” Dror Ladin, a staff attorney with the ACLU National Security Project, said in a statement.It was cruel and unethical, and it violated a prohibition against human experimentation that has been in place since World War II.”

Mitchell and Jessen were first contacted by the CIA in 2001 after police found materials in the apartment of an alleged Al Qaeda supporter that detailed interrogation resistance techniques.

The CIA asked the psychologists, who didn’t have any experience with interrogation, to devise was to bypass these resistance techniques. The two took inspiration from Martin Seligman, a psychologist who determined that dogs would be submissive if repeatedly inflicted with physical and mental suffering. Mitchell and Jessen surmised that this state of “learned helplessness” would produce a confession from detainees, according to The Intercept.

The Senate Intelligence Committee’s executive summary, however, found that there is no evidence that the torture methods commissioned under Mitchell and Jessen produced anything other than faulty or useless intelligence.

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Despite the lack of evidence supporting the usefulness of torture, the government signed off on the techniques at various times throughout the program’s existence, according to The Intercept.

A Justice Department inquiry scrutinized the behavior of top government officials involved with the CIA torture program, but it ended in 2012 without prosecutions. The ACLU’s lawsuit is the first time that the creators of the CIA torture program were themselves targeted by litigation.

“This case is about ensuring that the people behind the torture program are held accountable so history doesn’t repeat itself,” Steven Watt, one of the ACLU attorneys representing the three ex-detainees, told the Guardian.

“This lawsuit is different from past ones because public government documents now provide exhaustive details on the CIA torture program, and they identify the people who were tortured and how it happened,” he continued. “The government has long abused the ‘state secrets’ privilege to prevent accountability for torture but at this stage, any claim that the torture of our clients is a state secret would be absurd.”