Two psychologists who were paid more than $80 million by the CIA to develop "enhanced interrogation" techniques — which others have called torture — have settled a lawsuit brought by men who were detained.
The list of brutal methods devised by Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell for use by the U.S. included waterboarding; the tactics were meant to condition detainees into a state of helplessness. Mitchell has said he was told by U.S. officials that the idea was to "walk right up to the edge of the law."
The case had been set to go before a jury on Sept. 5. Due to their status as contractors rather than government employees, the lawsuit had targeted Jessen and Mitchell as private citizens.
Based in Spokane, Wash., the two psychologists were sued by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of three former prisoners — including one detainee who died of extreme cold in a secret CIA prison.
The case was filed in October of 2015, after a Senate intelligence committee released part of its report on the CIA's programs in which Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the panel's chairwoman, wrote that she had concluded that "under any common meaning of the term, CIA detainees were tortured."
Before elements of the Senate report were made public, the men's cases had been classified.
The plaintiffs included:
- Suleiman Abdullah Salim, a Tanzanian whom the CIA abducted in 2003 and imprisoned in Afghanistan, as NPR's David Welna has reported. He was was released with no charges after spending more than five years in U.S. custody.
- Libyan Mohamed Ahmed Ben Soud, who was shot and detained in 2003. He was held for around a year in a CIA prison in Afghanistan before being sent to Libya — where he was imprisoned for five years.
- The family of Gul Rahman, an Afghan man who was detained in Pakistan in October of 2002 and who died a month later after being chained in a cold cell, partially nude.
Salim, Soud, and Rahman were among the 119 detainees who were mentioned in the 2014 Senate Intelligence Committee report.
Similar details of the detainees' treatment emerged from the plaintiffs and the Senate report: Prisoners were often held nude or nearly nude; they were left hanging by their arms or chained to the floor; they were confined in small places and subjected to intense cold.
The defendants had repeatedly sought to dismiss the case, but it was allowed to proceed by Federal District Court Judge Justin Quackenbush — who had urged the two sides to reach a deal before a trial began.
The defendants issued a statement Thursday in which Jessen said, "Neither Dr. Mitchell nor I knew about, condoned, participated in, or sanctioned the unauthorized actions that formed the basis for this lawsuit."
"We served our country at a time when freedom and safety hung in the balance," Jessen said, adding that the actions they took were "legal and authorized and protected our country from another vicious attack."
In recent hearings, the judge also "noted that the federal government is paying for the team of defense attorneys for Mitchell and Jessen and would also fund any potential cash award by a jury," as The Spokesman-Review reported. Back in 2010, the AP and Mother Jones reported that the CIA had agreed to pay up to $5 million toward the psychologists' attorney fees.
As the settlement was announced Thursday, the plaintiffs said:
"We brought this case seeking accountability and to help ensure that no one else has to endure torture and abuse, and we feel that we have achieved our goals .... We were able to tell the world about horrific torture, the CIA had to release secret records, and the psychologists and high-level CIA officials were forced to answer our lawyers' questions. It has been a long, difficult road, but we are very pleased with the results."
The terms of the settlement are confidential. ACLU attorney Dror Ladin called it "a historic victory for our clients and the rule of law," adding that it shows there are consequences for those accused of torture.
In suing Mitchell and Jessen, the ACLU says, the plaintiffs accused them of "torture; cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment; nonconsensual human experimentation; and war crimes."
Mitchell and Jessen's work stemmed from military psychologists' efforts to prepare U.S. soldiers for potential capture, subjecting them to isolation, insults, and waterboarding as part of a training program known as Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape, or SERE. The pair were the first to propose "applying the harsh tactics used in SERE training to detainees," as NPR's Alix Spiegel reported in 2009.
On Thursday, Mitchell said that "certain individuals performed acts on detainees, including plaintiffs, without our knowledge or consent, and without authorization from the CIA — acts that should not have occurred and for which we are not responsible."
As part of the settlement, the psychologists and the former detainees agreed on a joint statement. It reads:
"Drs. Mitchell and Jessen acknowledge that they worked with the CIA to develop a program for the CIA that contemplated the use of specific coercive methods to interrogate certain detainees.
"Plaintiff Gul Rahman was subjected to abuses in the CIA program that resulted in his death and in pain and suffering for his family, including his personal representative Obaidullah. Plaintiffs Suleiman Abdullah Salim and Mohamed Ahmed Ben Soud were also subjected to coercive methods in the CIA program, which resulted in pain and suffering for them and their families.
"Plaintiffs assert that they were subjected to some of the methods proposed by Drs. Mitchell and Jessen to the CIA, and stand by their allegations regarding the responsibility of Drs. Mitchell and Jessen.
"Drs. Mitchell and Jessen assert that the abuses of Mr. Salim and Mr. Ben Soud occurred without their knowledge or consent and that they were not responsible for those actions. Drs. Mitchell and Jessen also assert that they were unaware of the specific abuses that ultimately caused Mr. Rahman's death and are also not responsible for those actions.
"Drs. Mitchell and Jessen state that it is regrettable that Mr. Rahman, Mr. Salim, and Mr. Ben Soud suffered these abuses."