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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

In what ACLU calls ‘historic victory,’ settlement reached in CIA interrogation suit of 2 former Spokane psychologists

The office of Mitchell Jessen and Associates is seen June 27, 2007, in downtown Spokane. (Brian Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

Before it could go to trial early next month, the attorneys for three men reached a settlement Thursday in the landmark torture civil suit against two Spokane psychologists who helped design the CIA’s harsh interrogation program used in the war on terror.

While the terms of the settlement were not disclosed, American Civil Liberties Union attorneys representing the three tortured men called it a “historic victory,” saying it was the first time the CIA or its private contractors had been held accountable for torturing suspects in the war on terror.

“This outcome shows that there are consequences for torture and that survivors can and will hold those responsible for torture accountable,” said ACLU attorney Dror Ladin in a statement to media. “It is a clear warning for anyone who thinks they can torture with impunity.”

The history of the lawsuit began in 2015, when the ACLU sued psychologists James E. Mitchell and John “Bruce” Jessen, two former Fairchild Air Force Base survival trainers who formed a private company in Spokane that was paid more than $80 million by the CIA following the Sept. 11 terror attacks. Ten months earlier in 2014, an exhaustive Senate Select Report on Intelligence found ample evidence that the two provided the CIA torture methods, including waterboarding, that were used on dozens of detainees.

The suit was filed on behalf of three former CIA prisoners, Gul Rahman, Suleiman Abdullah Salim and Mohamed Ahmed Ben Soud. According to court records, Rahman was interrogated in a dungeon-like Afghanistan prison in isolation, subjected to darkness and extreme cold water, and later died of hypothermia. The other two men are now free.

The complaint alleged that, despite not having any practical interrogation experience, the two psychologists devised a program drawn from 1960s experiments involving dogs and the theory of “learned helplessness.” According to the suit, the two argued that humans would become unable to resist an interrogator’s demands if subjected to pain, just like an abused dog becoming passive.

In the same Senate report on CIA programs, the committee found that the CIA’s torture methods failed to glean any intelligence not available through softer tactics.

According to the ACLU, previous lawsuits filed against government actors in the CIA torture program have been dismissed in initial stages because the “government successfully argued that letting the cases proceed would reveal state secrets.” But unlike previous cases, this time the Justice Department did not try to derail the lawsuit.

“It’s been a very long road, both in this case and in other cases to have torture survivors get their day in court,” Ladin said in a phone interview Thursday. “It’s been just very inspiring to have these clients stand up in front of those long odds and press their case. It’s been very gratifying to have them succeed over and over in this case when it could have been derailed.”

Ladin said the case could establish markers for judges to follow in future torture cases, including one brought against employees of Caci International who are alleged to have tortured prisoners at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison during the Iraq War. The case, much like the one in Spokane, has had a long history of drawn-out litigation since the lawsuit was first filed in 2008.

“I think it certainly establishes that these types of cases, first of all, can be safely litigated in U.S. courts, and our federal judges are capable of handling these cases even if they do handle secrete prisons and spies,” Ladin said. “Beyond that, the judge specifically rejected the idea that the federal courts don’t have a role to play when it’s claims of torture involving the Executive Branch.”

A trial had been scheduled for Sept. 5 in federal court in Spokane after U.S. District Court Judge Justin Quackenbush determined the plaintiffs had enough evidence to warrant a trial. In his 43-page opinion released Aug. 7, the judge questioned the merits of the case and expressed reservations, but found the “factual record would support a finding defendants had a role in the design of the program, trained interrogators for the program, and exercised some discretion in the application of the program.”

James T. Smith, lead attorney for the psychologists, said in a news release that his clients were public servants whose interrogation of suspected terrorist was authorized by the government, were legal, and done in an effort to protect innocent lives.

“The facts would have borne out that while the plaintiffs suffered mistreatment by some of their captors, none of that mistreatment was conducted, condoned or caused by Drs. Mitchell and Jessen,” he said in a written statement.

During a hearing on July 28, defense attorney Brian Paszamant argued that his clients only provided the CIA with a list of potential interrogation techniques.

“The problem is my clients were involved in drafting the guidelines (for the CIA) and didn’t know they were going to be applied at” CIA black-site prisons, Paszamant said in court. “There is a huge disconnect.”

Jessen, who still lives in the Spokane area, said in the statement to media that neither he nor Mitchel knew about, condoned, participated in, or sanctioned the unauthorized actions that formed the basis for the lawsuit.

“We served our country at a time when freedom and safety hung in the balance,” he said. “The actions that we actually participated in were legal and authorized and protected our country from another vicious attack.”

As part of the settlement, the plaintiffs and defendants agreed that Mitchell and Jessen acknowledged 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.

“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,” a joint statement from both parties reads. “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.”

Because the two psychologists worked as government contractors, their legal bills, including the settlement if it includes a monetary amount, are covered by taxpayers.

Staff reporter Thomas Clouse and the Associated Press contributed to this report.