Lawsuit opens a window on brutal C.I.A. interrogations

Fifteen years after he helped devise the brutal interrogation techniques used on terrorism suspects in secret C.I.A. prisons, John Bruce Jessen, a former military psychologist, expressed ambivalence about the program. He described himself and a fellow military psychologist, James Mitchell, as reluctant participants in using the techniques, some of which are widely viewed as torture, but also justified the practices as effective in getting resistant detainees to cooperate.“I think any normal, conscionable man would have to consider carefully doing something like this,” Dr. Jessen said in a deposition. “I deliberated with great, soulful torment about this, and obviously I concluded that it could be done safely or I wouldn’t have done it.”

The two psychologists, whom C.I.A. officials have called architects of the interrogation program — a designation they dispute, were defendants in the only lawsuit likely to hold participants accountable for causing harm.

The interrogation program has been well documented, but under deposition Drs. Jessen and Mitchell provided new details about it, their roles and their rationales. Their accounts were sometimes at odds with their own correspondence at the time, as well as previous portrayals of them by officials and other interrogators as eager participants in the program.

The lawsuit, filed in Federal District Court in Spokane, Wash., was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Gibbons law firm of Newark on behalf of three former prisoners of the Central Intelligence Agency: Mohamed Ben Soud, a Libyan who was detained by the C.I.A. in Afghanistan and was locked in small boxes, slammed against a wall, and doused with buckets of ice water while naked and shackled; Suleiman Salim, a Tanzanian captured in 2003 and also held by the C.I.A. in Afghanistan, who was beaten, isolated in a dark cell for months, doused with water, and deprived of sleep for days; and Gul Rahman, an Afghan, who was taken from his home in Pakistan in 2002 and died of hypothermia in a secret CIA prison in Afghanistan several weeks later after being shackled to a floor in near-freezing conditions.

The suit sought unspecified monetary damages for the two surviving plaintiffs and the estate of the third.

Revelations about the C.I.A. practices set off global denunciations and bitter divisions at home. They led to an eventual ban on the techniques and a prohibition by the American Psychological Association against members’ participation in national security interrogations. A 2014 Senate Intelligence Committee report condemned the interrogation techniques as brutal and ineffective in providing “unique” intelligence information by other means.

For years, Dr. Mitchell, polished and assertive, has defended the two men’s actions in the press and in a recent book, while Dr. Jessen remained silent. But Dr. Jessen answered questions under oath on January 20, the same day that President Trump was inaugurated. During the election campaign, Mr. Trump had pledged to revive the use of torture, including waterboarding, though he later backed off.

The two psychologists argued that the C.I.A., for which they were contractors, controlled the program. But it is difficult to successfully sue C.I.A. officials because of government immunity.

Under the agency’s direction, the two men said, they proposed the “enhanced interrogation” techniques — which were then authorized by the George W. Bush Justice Department — applied them and trained others to do so. Their business received $81 million from the agency over the years of their contract.

The two psychologists dispute the C.I.A.’s designation of them as the architects of the interrogation program. Yet, Dr. Mitchell has offered himself as a public speaker about his role in the C.I.A. program and his insights on “the minds of those trying to destroy America.” His fee is listed as $15,000 to $25,000 on the site of Worldwide Speakers Group, which states: “Dr. Mitchell led the development of the C.I.A.’s enhanced interrogation program after 9/11 and was a primary interrogator from its inception.”

In his deposition, Dr. Mitchell, who once said that most people would prefer to have their legs broken than to be waterboarded, disagreed with a plaintiff lawyer’s reference to the practice as painful. “It sucks, you know. I don’t know that it’s painful,” he said. “I’m using the word distressing.”

At the same time, he revealed in his deposition that he, along with others, urged the C.I.A. to destroy graphic videotapes the agency had made of waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques. The destruction of the tapes became the subject of investigations by the Justice Department and Congress.

Both Dr. Mitchell and Dr. Jessen rejected the notion that men subjected to the harsh techniques suffered any long-term physical or psychological damage. But The New York Times found a pattern of long-term psychological damage among dozens of former detainees subjected to brutal treatment by the United States. The men described grappling with depression, anxiety, withdrawal and flashbacks.

The advocacy group Physicians for Human Rights released a report contending that the two psychologists and the C.I.A. engaged in unethical experimentation on detainees, which is banned by the Nuremberg Code for health professionals developed after World War II. The group said the explicit mention of applied research in the psychologists’ contracts with the agency and similar references in C.I.A. cables indicated that the enhanced interrogation program “was itself an applied research regime and implicitly conceptualized as such by the C.I.A.”

At a hearing in Spokane on July 28, federal Judge Justin L. Quackenbush said he would deny motions by both sides to rule summarily in their favor in advance of a trial scheduled for September 5. He further stated he would not allow it to become a political trial. Instead, he said, the trial would focus on whether the plaintiffs were subjected to torture, and if so, whether the defendants legally and factually aided and abetted that torture.

An out-of-court settlement in the landmark lawsuit, announced August 17, marked the first time the C.I.A. or its private contractors have been held accountable for the interrogation program, legal experts said. Deborah Pearlstein, professor at the Cardozo Law School in New York, said, “This puts an exclamation mark at the end of ‘don’t torture!’ ”

The group Physicians for Human Rights said the case shows that health professionals who participate in torture will be held accountable. “These two psychologists had a fundamental ethical obligation to do no harm, which they perverted to inflict severe pain and suffering on human beings in captivity,” said Donna McKay, executive director of the group.

Terms of the settlement were not disclosed.

– edited from The New York Times and The Associated Press
PeaceMeal, Sept./October 2017

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