Two psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, who were contracted by the CIA to develop torture techniques, agreed to a confidential settlement with torture survivors.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued Mitchell and Jessen on behalf of Suleiman Abdullah Salim, Mohamed Ahmed Ben Soud, and the family of Gul Rahman. The lawsuit alleged the CIA contractors committed crimes that included water torture, forcing prisoners into boxes, and chaining prisoners in painful stress positions to walls.
“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,” the plaintiffs said in a joint statement posted by the ACLU.
They added, “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.”
Mitchell and Jessen refused to concede that they committed acts of torture, but as evidenced by the settlement, the contractors did not want to face trial in September.
Mitchell, Jessen, and plaintiffs agreed to release the following joint statement:
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. 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.
The settlement comes after Judge Justin Quackenbush denied a last-ditch effort by Mitchell and Jessen to get the lawsuit dismissed. They invoked the cases of accused Nazi war criminals to argue they should not be held responsible for the torture techniques they developed.
Quackenbush was not persuaded by the contractors’ arguments and suggested a “finder of fact” might conclude that since they were at secret detention sites they “exercised significant control during individual interrogations.”
Also, it is rather sickening that neither Mitchell nor Jessen will admit in the context of the announced settlement that they played a key role in the death of Rahman.
Rahman lived in Pakistan in October 2002 and was detained by a “joint U.S./Pakistani operation” and transferred to a secret detention site in November that was known as COBALT, according to “summary judgment facts.”
Jessen interrogated Rahman for more than 48 hours. At one point, he used an “enhanced interrogation technique” known as the “facial slap.” He believed Rahman was “strong, centered, focused, and good at resistance.” He recommended frequent interrogations and more “environmental deprivations.”
Two “unauthorized techniques” were used on Rahman and Jessen observed their use. Rahman was subjected to a “hard takedown,” where he was “dragged from his cell.” Personnel cut off his clothes, taped his hands, and a hood was put on his head. He was run up and down a hallway and “sometimes stumbled and was dragged.”
Personnel also “slapped and punched” Rahman in the stomach. Jessen concluded, according to a CIA Inspector General report, that this brutality was “rehearsed and professional executed.”
Mitchell later arrived at the site. He was asked to “administer a mental health status exam and provide an assessment of interrogation measures.”
In a capable sent to CIA headquarters, Jessen recommended, “The most effective interrogation plan for Gul Rahman is to continue the environmental deprivations he is experiencing and institute a concentrated interrogation exposure regimen.”
James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen left COBALT. Rahman was in his tenth day of secret detention. Six days later, Rahman was dead.
As part of the “summary judgment facts,” Quackenbush wrote, “Rahman was found ‘short-chained’ with his hands and feet shackled and a chain connecting the shackles which forced him to sit on the concrete floor. He was naked from the waist down. The temperature at COBALT
was near freezing. The cause of death was determined by an Office of Inspector General investigation to be hypothermia.”
CIA personnel committed manslaughter. The personnel went down a path that ended in death because a doctor assured them their torture and abuse would not be deadly to Rahman.
In March 20025, a few years after Rahman died from torture, Mitchell and Jessen former their own firm to provide “qualified interrogators, detainee security officers for CIA detention sites, and curriculum development and training services” for the torture program. They were paid anywhere from $72 to $81 million dollars.
Both Mitchell and Jessen maintain the CIA had “absolute control” over what techniques could be employed against detainees. But as Quackenbush acknowledged, Jessen testified, “I was asked by the CIA to assess [Rahman] for their use [torture techniques].”
“The only reasonable way to determine that would be to pick the least intrusive one, see how he responded,” Jessen said. So, in that sense, Jessen had the discretion to employ techniques in the manner he desired.
One lead CIA staff officer at COBALT told investigators that “Rahman was the responsibility of Jessen.”Jessen sent cables that documented interrogation sessions with Rahman. Mitchell participated in one interrogation session.
Prior to departing COBALT, he “prepared” an interrogation plan that was used up until Rahman’s death, including subjecting him to freezing temperatures.
Neither Salim nor Soud were ever interrogated by Mitchell or Jessen, but they alleged they were subjected to techniques the contractors developed.
Salim, who was detained in Somalia in 2003, had a cloth put around his neck and he was punched while he was against the wall. He believes this was similar to the “enhanced interrogation technique” known as “walling.”
After capture in Pakistan, Soud was sent to COBALT, where he says he was subjected to “sleep deprivation, nudity, dietary manipulation, facial hold, attention grasp, abdominal slap, facial slap, stress positions, cramped confinement, water dousing and walling.” Each of these are familiar torture techniques favored by Mitchell and Jessen for use against detainees.
The settlement is monumental in the sense that James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen are the first individuals to be held responsible, to some degree, for CIA torture in the “War on Terrorism.”
“This is a historic victory for our clients and the rule of law,” declared ACLU attorney Dror Ladin. “This outcome shows that there are consequences for torture and that survivors can and will hold those responsible for torture accountable. It is a clear warning for anyone who thinks they can torture with impunity.”
However, the CIA investigated the actions of its personnel and determined not a single person committed a crime that deserved prosecution.
President Barack Obama’s administration conducted a review of detention and interrogation practices, but they shied away from prosecuting any government officials or interrogators, who were implicated in carrying out torture.
The high point of public “accountability” was a study conducted by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. A summary of the report clearly established much of the extent to which the CIA carried out brutality against detainees and then sought to conceal it from those who might provide any kind of oversight.
It was the Obama administration that opposed individuals, such as Ethiopian native Binyam Mohamed and Canadian citizen Maher Arar, as they sought to hold officials in President George W. Bush’s administration accountable. They took steps to prevent survivors from having their day in court, and that’s partly why the fact that this civil lawsuit nearly made it to trial was significant.
With a U.S. president in office now who has praised waterboarding and other forms of torture, this is unlikely to be much of a deterrent on government officials who engage in torture or abuse. It may impact whether private contractors participate in the detention or interrogation of captives. Or it might lead private contractors to ensure there are more clearly laid out terms in contracts to prevent them from being held liable in courts.
Still, the survivors achieved some semblance of justice, and given how rare any sliver of justice is when it comes to cases against people implicated in government-sponsored torture, this settlement is inarguably a remarkable outcome.