CIA torture case against 2 psychologists goes to trial

Three former CIA detainees who underwent enhanced torture methods claim that two psychologists should be held responsible for the suffering they experienced at the hands of the agency.

Psychologists Elmer Mitchell and John “Bruce” Jessen stood before US District Court Judge Justin Quakenbush in Spokane, Washington, on Friday and defended themselves against allegations that they should be held liable for the methods conducted on three former CIA detainees at a secret “black site” during the administration of former President George W. Bush.

The judge set a trial date for September 5.

The psychologists had previously asked the court to interview CIA agents to prove that they were just following orders, but that motion was denied on the grounds that questioning the agents would reveal important national security information. The CIA is covering the two men’s legal expenses for the case.

Below is the story published Thursday, before Friday's pre-trial hearing.

The American Civil Liberties Union is scheduled to represent three former detainees on Friday in US District Court in Spokane, Washington, against James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, two psychologists who helped the CIA devise illegal torture techniques following the September 11, 2001 terror attacks.

ACLU lawyer Dror Ladin is representing the three former prisoners: Suleiman Abdullah Salim, Mohamed Ahmed Ben Soud and a representative of Gul Rahman, who passed away while in custody of the CIA.

The men claim that they were tortured by the very same techniques that Mitchell and Jessen designed, and they say that the two sometimes performed the techniques on them, starting in 2003.

Michael Kearns, a retired US Air Force captain, used to teach techniques to resist interrogation at the Survival Evasion Resistance Escape (SERE) school in the 1980s, and worked with Jessen to develop a course called SV-91.

Mitchell and Jessen have “taken and reverse-engineered the harsh parts of SERE and turned them into EITs - enhanced interrogation program, brutal techniques,” Kearns told RT. The techniques used were  “grossly beyond anything at the SERE school standards, in my opinion.”

Lawyers for Jessen and Mitchell have prepared in their defense a reference to the Nuremberg Trials, citing the case of a gas technician who worked for a firm that created Zyklon B gas used by the Nazis in World War II concentration camps. That technician was ultimately exonerated. The court noted that even though the technician knew that he played an important role in the transfer of the gas, he was not complicit in how it was used, the Spokesman-Review reported.

“Making comparisons to the Nazi regime’s murderous use of poison gas is rarely a good idea,” Ladin wrote. “In fact, the Nuremberg tribunals that judged the Nazis and their enablers after World War II established the opposite rule: Private contractors are accountable when they choose to provide unlawful means and profit from war crimes,” according to the Review.

According to Ladin, the three detainees in the case were subjected to sleep deprivation, physical assaults and forced to stand for days in diapers with their arms chained overhead, doused with ice water and stuffed into boxes.

But Jessen and Mitchell’s lawyers say that the two did not have the authority to "control, prevent or modify" any of the enhanced techniques being used by the agency during the time the three men were tortured, ABC News reported.

The defense made the claim that Congress empowered the US president at the time to respond to threats of terrorism, and he reacted by telling the National Counterterrorism Center to catch and interrogate operatives of Al-Qaida. That is when the CIA hired the psychologists, therefore, lawyers say that the government’s immunity should extend to Mitchell and Jessen and the case should be thrown out.

John Kiriakou, the CIA whistleblower who exposed the torture program, says the two psychologists were hired because the agency wanted to atone for 9/11 by capturing and interrogating terrorists.

“The reason Mitchell and Jessen were put in charge of this terrible, this important program was because the CIA simply had no experience in this kind of thing,” Kiriakou told RT. “Because they had nobody internally that could do these interrogations, they decided to hire Mitchell and Jessen – at the cost of $81 million – to come in and teach the CIA how to torture people. At the end of the day, Mitchell and Jessen were the ones who flew out to the secret prison site overseas and actually carried out the torture themselves.”

The judge has several options in the case: He can either find the psychologists guilty of aiding and abetting torture, which would result in no trial at all, or he can dismiss the ACLU’s suit. Moreover, the judge can limit claims that can be made against the two.