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CIA Torture Architects Sued by Former Detainees for Water Dousing & Other Methods

The American Civil Liberties Union sued two psychologists, who were contracted by the CIA to develop, implement, and personally administer the agency’s experimental torture program against detainees in the War on Terrorism.

The suit, brought on behalf of three men subject to torture, accuses James Mitchell and John “Bruce” Jessen of violations of international law and human rights abuses. The lawsuit is pursued under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), which allows non-U.S. citizens to bring claims in U.S. courts.

Mitchell and Jessen allegedly engaged in torture and cruel, degrading, and inhuman treatment, non-consensual human experimentation, and war crimes. These crimes include water torture, forcing prisoners into boxes, and chaining prisoners in painful stress positions to walls.

Their role as architects is clearly documented in the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s report on the CIA’s rendition, detention, and interrogation (RDI) program. The psychologists “drew on experiments from the 1960s in which researchers taught dogs ‘helplessness’ by subjecting them to uncontrollable pain.” They theorized that human beings, who were subject to systematic abuse, would become “helpless and unable to resist an interrogator’s demand for information.”

“Mitchell and Jessen conspired with the CIA to torture these three men and many others,” declared Steven Watt, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU Human Rights Program. “They claimed that their program was scientifically based, safe, and proven, when in fact it was none of those things. The program was unlawful and its methods barbaric. Psychology is a healing profession, but Mitchell and Jessen violated the ethical code of ‘do no harm’ in some of the most abhorrent ways imaginable.”

Suleiman Abdullah Salim, Mohamed Ahmed Ben Soud, and a representative of Gul Rahman’s estate. Salim and Soud were kidnapped by the CIA and suffered torture and experimentation. Rahman was captured by the CIA and tortured until he died at a secret prison referred to as COBALT in the Senate intelligence committee’s report on CIA torture.

Salim and Ben Soud live with lasting psychological and physical damage from being subjected to “solitary confinement, extreme darkness, cold, and noise, beatings, starvation, stress positions, prolonged sleep deprivation, confinement in coffin-like boxes and water torture.”

Kidnapped & Immediately Made to Feel Helpless

The story of what Salim, a Tanzanian man born in 1972 who lived in Somalia, experienced is recounted in excruciating detail [PDF].

According to the ACLU, Salim, who settled with his wife, Magida, in Mogadishu, Somalia, was abducted by CIA and Kenyan National Intelligence Service agents around March 15, 2003. He was flown to Nairobi, Kenya, and secretly detained for eight days by Kenyan authorities before he was exclusively turned over to U.S. officials.

Salim was rendered to the COBALT black site prison “from Kenya to a U.S. Air Base in Bossasso, Somalia; from Bossasso to Djibouti; and, on or around March 26, 2003, from Djibouti to COBALT.”

The CIA immediately established conditions for “learned helplessness” by cutting off all of Salim’s clothes and then forcibly inserting “an object into his anus,” causing Salim “excruciating pain.” They took photos, put Salim in a diaper, pants, and a short-sleeved shirt. He then had earplugs stuffed in his ears, a hood put over his head, and a pair of goggles and headphones placed over his hood and earplugs. Then, he was cuffed and shackled. He was “disoriented and terrified” and brought on board an aircraft, where he was chained to the floor and flown for at least eight hours.

After landing, CIA personnel unchained him and then threw his body into the back of a truck. He was “pinned to the floor on his stomach—with someone’s knee pressing into the small of his back,” as he was driven a short distance on a bumpy dirt road.

Salim was brought into the COBALT prison in shackles, handcuffs, blindfold, and headphones. His nose was overpowered from a smell he likened to “rotting seaweed.” Once his headphones, hood, and earplugs were taken off, “loud western pop music” bombarded his ears. He also claims to have heard people speaking in English, Kiswhahili, and Somali, with people saying things like, “There’s no God, no God, no God.” He could not see anything in the prison, which was pitch black and appeared to be “large and cavernous.”

“The putrid smell, crashing noises and loud music, and pitch blackness at COBALT remained constant for the entire five weeks of Mr. Salim’s imprisonment,” according to the complaint. “The smell and the noise were at their most intense in Mr. Salim’s cell.

The only time the noise and music let up—and then only very briefly—was when the tracks changed or when the system malfunctioned.” Salim only saw light when guards shined flashlights at him or when lights were used during his interrogations.

In a “tiny, damp, and frigid concrete cell,” which Salim estimates was eight feet high, seven feet long, and three feet wide, the cell was pitch black and empty except for a rug. He was given no bed or blanket. There was no bathroom or place to wash himself. On the wall, there was a rusty metal hoop. The guard chained Salim’s arms and legs to this hoop, “with his arms outstretched and at eye level.” This made it impossible to sleep because all Salim could do is squat in an “uncomfortable and extremely painful” position.

As the guards continued to make him feel helpless and afraid, he was kept chained in this stress position. It was two days after arrival before he was given a piece of bread in some “watery, tasteless broth” and a “large bottle of water.” He was unchained for a short time so he could eat. It was also the first time he was allowed to use a metal bucket put in his cell to go to the bathroom. Until this time, he had “urinated and defecated in his diaper and the clothes in which he had been rendered from Somalia.”

During the first week, he was taken out of his cell once for a medical examination. He was weighed. The doctor paid attention to the broken nose and fingers, which were injuries sustained during the abduction in Mogadishu. The doctor took x-rays and put his fingers in a case. He was given a painkiller, but Salim was afraid of the pills and hid them in his clothing and cell. He also planned to kill himself with the painkillers.

Stripped Naked, Doused in Water on a Plastic Sheet, and Suffocated

The second phase of the program of “learned helplessness” allegedly devised by Mitchell and Jessen went into effect two or three days after the medical examination. In fact, Salim became convinced the doctor who treated him had “given the go-ahead for more abuse.”

Up to this point, Salim had not been questioned at all. Guards entered his cell entirely dressed in black. They unchained Salim and cuffed his hands and shackled his legs. He was marched to a “dimly-lit room” and put down in a chair. Eight or nine men in “black hats, masks, and overalls” surrounded him and approached him with an electric razor. They shaved his head and facial hair.

Guards then removed the handcuffs and shackles and ripped off all his clothes. He was cuffed and shackled again and laid on a “large plastic sheet” on the floor. “A thin film of ice-cold water covered the surface of the plastic sheet. Using a large jug, two men repeatedly doused Mr. Salim in gallons of ice-cold water. The water was so cold it left Mr. Salim breathless,” according to the ACLU’s complaint.

In between the water dousing, the two men kicked and slapped Mr. Salim on the stomach or face and shouted at him in English. After some 20 or 30 minutes of this water torture, the men pulled up the corners of the freezing cold sheet and rolled Mr. Salim inside. Covered in the plastic sheet, Mr. Salim was left to shiver violently in the cold for some 10 or 15 minutes

Following the water torture, Salim was brought to a room and restrained while a spotlight was aimed at his face. One unmasked man shouted questions in English, which were translated into Somali. The interrogator demanded “personal background information,” including what he was doing in Somalia. He was asked to share whether he knew any of the names on a list. He said he was trader, who did business in Somalia. He recently had married his wife.

The complaint details how he was nearly suffocated while subjected to more water torture:

…After roughly half an hour, Mr. Salim was taken back into the first room. His head was covered in a cloth bag, and he was again placed in the middle of the plastic sheet. His two interrogators repeated the ice cold water dousing, but this time the cloth bag clung to Mr. Salim’s face, suffocating him. Mr. Salim felt like he was drowning. His heart felt as if it was beating out of his chest. He was paralyzed with cold. This water dousing session ended like the first: the men rolled Mr. Salim in the plastic sheet so he felt “like a corpse” and left him in the cold for around 15 minutes before he was dragged once again to the second room for interrogation.

As the ACLU complaint indicates, “The water torture sessions followed by interrogation continued in this same manner for hours.”

A Rancid Confinement Box

Next interrogators put Salim in a small wooden box, which was allegedly three square feet in size.

…There were holes on one side and another was hinged with a lock and padlock. Naked, chained,and shackled, Mr. Salim was stuffed inside the box and it was locked shut. The space was pitch black, and so small that Mr. Salim had to crouch over on his knees. The box smelled rancid. Mr. Salim was locked in the box for what he estimates was half an hour, though it felt much longer. Mr. Salim vomited in pain and fear while he was inside the small cramped confinement box. Interrogators used this technique on him only on the first day, but they threatened to use it on him on a number of other occasions during interrogations at COBALT…

His first day of torture ended, and Salim was brought back to his cell and put in a painful stress position again. The guards chained him while he was naked to the metal ring on the wall. He had enough chain to sit on the floor, but it was still painful. There was constant loud music and cold. He could not sleep.

Put in a Foam Collar on a Leash & Thrown Against a Wooden Wall

The ACLU complaint indicates throughout the “aggressive phase” Salim was naked. He only wore clothes during a few interrogation sessions. He was subject to more water torture sessions on the second day.

Unlike the first day, however, before the second day concluded he was subject to a torture technique called “walling.”

…Mr. Salim was taken to a room in which a wooden wall had been constructed. The lead interrogator placed a foam collar, attached to a leash, around Mr. Salim’s neck. Using the leash, the interrogator threw Mr. Salim against the wooden wall. Mr. Salim crashed into the wall, and as he rebounded, the interrogator struck Mr. Salim in the stomach. The interrogator repeated this procedure several times, shouting at Mr. Salim as he propelled Mr. Salim against the wall and beat him. After the walling ended, Mr. Salim was interrogated again.

Then, he was immediately forced into a “tall, thin, coffin-like box,” which was only wide enough to “accommodate a fully grown adult with arms stretched over their head.” He had his hands “chained above his head to a thin metal rod that ran the width of the box. He was closed in the box and left for hours in the darkness with music playing loudly at the box from different angles. After this, interrogators blasted a spotlight at him again and asked the same questions they asked the day before.

According to the ACLU, “Once this interrogation session ended, guards took Mr. Salim back to his cell and chained him by his legs and arms to the iron ring in the wall. He was left overnight in pain, naked, cold, and unable to sleep.”

Naked, Hooded, and Forced to Drag Around a Chain With Large Ball on the End

Salim endured water torture for two more days. The third day an interrogator “attached a chain with a large ball at the end” around his waist. He was ordered to drag it around the room while naked with a hood over his head. This allegedly went on for around thirty minutes before he collapsed.

During the final day of water torture, interrogators strapped his hands and feet to a wooden board and threatened to waterboard him. Instead of waterboarding him, they spun him around in circles multiple times.

In the third week of his detention, guards subject him to prolonged standing sleep deprivation. He was taken to a pitch black room and had his hands chained to a metal rod above his head. The balls of his feet were positioned so they barely touched the ground. The guards left him hanging naked and in the darkness while loud music was blasted at him.

“During this entire period, Mr. Salim was given no food and only sips of water,” the ACLU describes. “He remained suspended from the ceiling without interruption, including when he relieved himself. The only time he was taken down was for interrogation. On occasion, he started to drift into sleep but immediately jolted awake from the excruciating pain that shot through his arms and shoulders as they momentarily supported his full body weight. Mr. Salim was subjected to this form of standing sleep deprivation for what seemed to him four or five days.”

Salim thought his back and shoulders may have been dislocated from this torture. His legs swelled, and he could smell a sickening stench from the plaster cast still on his hand. He had a large cut that opened up on this same hand.

A male doctor or nurse came to treat him after this torture session ended. Nothing was done for swollen legs, however, the cast on his fingers was removed. The doctor or nurse took care of Salim’s wound was re-bandaged.

Bizarre Polygraph Exam: “Are the Lights on Or Off?

Salim was tortured for at least two to three weeks before these sessions stopped. In the fourth or fifth week, a man gave him a polygraph test, which Salim recalled as “bizarre.” The man shouted questions like, “Are the lights on or off?” or “What time of day is it?” (It is as if they were trying to see if what they had done to him had driven Salim insane.)

Salim appears to have been subjected to further human experimentation after this strange polygraph exam:

Sometime after this polygraph test, guards took Mr. Salim from his cell, blindfolded him, strapped him to a stretcher, and wheeled him to a dimly lit room. There he received three very painful injections in his arm. Mr. Salim was not told what these injections were for, and he did not consent to them. From under his blindfold, Mr. Salim could see that he was hooked up to some kind of a computer screen or monitor. After the injections were administered Mr. Salim felt drowsy, like a drunken person, and his face went numb, as if he’d been slapped very hard. The next thing Mr. Salim was aware of was waking up in his cell, chained to the wall. He has no recollection of what happened to him in the intervening period, or how long the period lasted.

Salim decided he was going to kill himself with the stockpiled painkillers in his cell. He tried to take them, but guards stormed his cell just as he was attempting suicide. He was transferred to another black-site prison in the same manner in which he was brought to COBALT. Salim later learned was called the “Salt Pit.”

For 14 months, Salim was in solitary confinement in the “Salt Pit.” The CIA didn’t interrogate him. He was interrogated by FBI agents. He also was visited by an interrogator from COBALT, who allegedly apologized to Salim and explained he had been “forced to torture” Salim. He asked for Salim’s forgiveness.

Around July 2004, Salim was moved to U.S. military custody and held at Bagram Air Force Base. He was kept in solitary confinement in “a series of small cages in a large, hanger-type building. Bright lights remained on constantly,” according to the complaint. “He never saw daylight.”

Released But Unable to Find His Wife After Years of Torture

Four years later, on August 17, 2008, he was informed by a representative with the Red Cross that he would be released. A memo was given to him from the Pentagon, which confirmed he had been detained by “United States/Coalition Forces.” It said it was determined he posed no threat. He was told there were no charges pending against him.

The Red Cross helped him fly to Dubai and to Dar es Salaam and then on to Zanzibar, where he could rejoin his family. Salim was unable to find his wife and has never been able to locate her. He married a second wife and now has a three year-old daughter.

As a result of the torture he endured, he suffers pain in his jaw and teeth, which makes it hard to eat solid foods. His sense of taste and smell were impaired. He has “severe pain in his back, shoulders, and legs.” He has psychological injuries including “frequent nightmares and terrifying flashbacks.” During the day, he will experience “spells of dizziness and confusion.”

“A forensic examination conducted after his release confirms many other symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, including intrusive recollections, avoidance/emotional numbing, hyper-arousal symptoms, and major depression,” according to the complaint.

His case is now before the United States District Court for Eastern District of Washington, as he seeks to hold Mitchell and Jessen accountable for the role they played in devising the program used to torture him.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."