WASHINGTON – The American Civil Liberties Union on Tuesday sued two former Air Force psychologists who designed a CIA program that used harsh interrogation techniques to elicit intelligence from suspected terrorists, saying the pair endorsed and taught torture tactics under the guise of science.
The psychologists, James E. Mitchell and John “Bruce” Jessen, are former Fairchild Air Force Base survival trainers who formed a private company in Spokane that was paid more than $80 million by the CIA.
The lawsuit comes 10 months after the release of a damning Senate report that said the interrogation techniques had inflicted pain on al-Qaida prisoners far beyond the legal limits and did not yield lifesaving intelligence.
The suit accuses Mitchell and Jessen of developing an interrogation program that relied on beatings, sleep deprivation, starvation, waterboarding and other methods that caused physical and psychological suffering on prisoners in CIA custody.
A lawyer for the pair did not immediately return a message seeking comment on Tuesday.
It was filed on behalf of three former CIA prisoners. One, Gul Rahman, was interrogated in a dungeon-like Afghanistan prison called the Salt Pit, subjected to isolation, darkness and extreme cold water, and was later found dead of hypothermia. The other two men, Suleiman Abdullah Salim and Mohamed Ahmed Ben Soud, are now free.
The lawsuit was brought under the Alien Tort Statute, which allows noncitizens to sue in U.S. courts over human-rights violations. A 2010 Associated Press report, citing former U.S. officials, said the CIA promised to cover at least $5 million in legal fees for the psychologists if the program ran into trouble.
The suit repeats many of the allegations that surfaced in an exhaustive Senate investigation issued last year. It found sweeping flaws with the CIA’s approach to interrogations.
The complaint alleges that the psychologists, despite having no practical interrogation experience or specific background in al-Qaida, devised a program for the CIA that drew from 1960s experiments involving dogs and the theory of “learned helplessness.” In making their case to the CIA, the psychologists argued that just as abused dogs will become passive and compliant, humans subject to “uncontrollable pain” would “become helpless and unable to resist an interrogator’s demand for information,” according to the lawsuit.
The pair, who worked as independent contractors for the CIA, formed a company that was ultimately paid $81 million and which as of April 2007 directly employed 11 of the 13 interrogators used by the agency, the complaint states. The men were also themselves involved in some of the interrogations.
Following release of the Senate report last year, Mitchell told The Associated Press that though he could not confirm his involvement with the CIA, he challenged the conclusion that the interrogation tactics did not produce otherwise unobtainable intelligence.
“I completely understand why the human rights organizations in the United States are upset by the Senate report,” Mitchell said at the time. “I would be upset by it too, if it were true.”
“What they are asking you to believe is that multiple directors of the CIA and analysts who made their living for years doing this lied to the federal government, or were too stupid to know that the intelligence they were getting wasn’t useful.”
In responding to the Senate report, the CIA defended the hiring of the two psychologists.
“We believe their expertise was so unique that we would have been derelict had we not sought them out when it became clear that CIA would be heading into the uncharted territory of the program,” the agency said.
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