"The CIA program violated not only international and U.S. prohibitions on torture — it also violated the well-established ban on non-consensual human experimentation."
Judge Allows A CIA Torture Lawsuit To Move Forward For The First Time
The three men at the heart of the case were beaten, held in coffin-sized boxes, and hung from metal rods.
04/22/2016 Jessica Schulberg Foreign Affairs Reporter, The Huffington Post
SPOKANE, Wash. — A federal judge indicated Friday he will deny a request from two CIA-contracted psychologists to throw out a lawsuit filed on behalf of three victims of the agency’s now-defunct enhanced interrogation program.
“I don’t think I have any other choice,” said Senior Judge Justin L. Quackenbush of the Eastern District of Washington, indicating that he would allow the case to move forward despite objections from the psychologists’ lawyers, who claimed their clients are immune from civil liability.
The decision was a landmark victory for the American Civil Liberties Union, the group representing Suleiman Abdullah Salim and Mohamed Ahmed Ben Soud, as well as the family of Gul Rahman, who died in CIA custody in 2002. The ACLU is seeking damages for their clients from the two psychologists, who they allege in their complaint “designed, implemented, and personally administered an experimental torture program for the [CIA].”
“This has never happened before,” Hina Shamsi, an ACLU lawyer on the case, told reporters outside the courtroom after the hearing. She and her team didn’t expect the judge to make a decision on whether to scrap the case so quickly and appeared genuinely surprised that he ruled in their favor.
“There have been so many cases brought by torture victims ... and not one of them has been able to go forward, for shameful reasons,” Shamsi said. “This is a very big deal for our clients.”
The three men represented by the ACLU were identified in the Senate’s 500-page executive summary of a 6,000-page report on the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation program” as being exposed to brutal interrogation methods that constitute torture. They were waterboarded, beaten, hung from metal rods, held in coffin-sized boxes, and deprived of light, food, and sleep....
The Senate report refers to psychologists James Elmer Mitchell and John “Bruce” Jessen using pseudonyms, and describes their integral role in creating and executing an interrogation program that taught prisoners “learned helplessness” by exposing them to uncontrollable pain. The duo’s company received $81 million from the CIA for the work on the interrogation program.
Spokane....it’s where Mitchell and Jessen, who both taught U.S. soldiers survival, evasion, resistance and escape techniques at the nearby Fairchild Air Force Base, set up shop when they contracted with the intelligence agency....
Although President Barack Obama outlawed the use of torture early in his administration, he has declined to prosecute individuals responsible for creating and implementing the torture program operated by the CIA between 2002 and 2007, setting a precedent of immunity for those involved.
The U.S. government has blocked past efforts by the ACLU to sue individuals and entities for actions related to CIA torture by arguing that the lawsuits risked exposing state secrets. Judges dismissed those prior cases, ruling in a way that Ladin described Friday as “overly deferential” to the government....
Out of the Darkness
How two psychologists teamed up with the CIA to devise a torture program and experiment on human beings.
....For more than a month, Suleiman endured an incessant barrage of torture techniques designed to psychologically destroy him. His torturers repeatedly doused him with ice-cold water. They beat him and slammed him into walls. They hung him from a metal rod, his toes barely touching the floor. They chained him in other painful stress positions for days at a time. They starved him, deprived him of sleep, and stuffed him inside small boxes. With the torture came terrifying interrogation sessions in which he was grilled about what he was doing in Somalia and the names of people, all but one of whom he’d never heard of.
After four or five weeks of this relentless pain and suffering, Suleiman’s torturers assessed him as psychologically broken and incapable of resisting them. Suleiman could take no more. He decided to end his life by consuming painkillers he had stockpiled. But as he began to take the pills, guards stormed into his cell to stop him. He was then shackled, hooded, and driven a short distance to another CIA prison close by — a prison Suleiman came to know as the “Salt Pit.” Although Suleiman’s torture would continue for many years more, the very worst of it was over.
Anatomy of an Abduction
A year and two months later, the CIA handed Suleiman over to the U.S. military, which imprisoned him at Bagram, also in Afghanistan. Finally, in 2008, after more than five years in U.S. custody, with no charges ever leveled against him, he was sent home with a document confirming he posed no threat to the United States. His family had heard nothing of him since his disappearance, and they had presumed him dead.
But even once home in his native Zanzibar, Suleiman felt far from free. Constant flashbacks transported him back to his torture at the hands of his CIA captors. After years of near-starvation he was unable to eat normally. He suffered splitting headaches and pain throughout his body from the torture. Prolonged isolation left him unaccustomed to human interaction. Despite repeated attempts, he couldn’t find Magida. Unable to sleep due to the torment of his memories and the physical pain, he found limited solace playing with his family’s rabbits in the middle of the night....
Suleiman’s trauma is not just a consequence of his ordeal in American prisons. It was the CIA’s goal, through a program designed and executed by two psychologists the agency contracted to run its torture operations, to break his mind. Integral to the program was the idea that once a detainee had been psychologically destroyed through torture, he would become compliant and cooperate with interrogators’ demands. The theory behind the goal had never been scientifically tested because such trials would violate human experimentation bans established after Nazi experiments and atrocities during World War II. Yet that theory would drive an experiment in some of the worst systematic brutality ever inflicted on detainees in modern American history. Today, three of the many victims and survivors of that experiment are seeking justice through a lawsuit against the men who designed and implemented that program for the CIA.
Mitchell and Jessen were two former U.S. military psychologists contracted by the CIA to design, develop, and run the agency’s detention, rendition, and interrogation operations. As psychologists in the U.S. military’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) program, the two men had devoted their careers to training U.S. troops to resist abusive treatment in case of capture by governments that violate the Geneva Conventions. SERE teaches resistance by subjecting students to carefully controlled versions of harsh techniques used by China, North Korea, and the former Soviet Union, often to extract false confessions from captives for propaganda purposes. During training, psychologists like Mitchell and Jessen are on hand to monitor trainees’ psychological well-being and to ensure that SERE instructors don’t go too far.
But Mitchell and Jessen intensified and manipulated SERE techniques so they bore little relation to those used on SERE recruits. Whereas SERE training was intended to help strengthen the resolve of American recruits, Mitchell and Jessen’s techniques were designed to achieve the exact opposite result: to break detainees and turn their minds into putty in interrogators’ hands....
Mitchell and Jessen were interested in applying the psychological concept of “learned helplessness” to interrogation. Psychologist Martin Seligman pioneered studies on the phenomenon in experiments he conducted on dogs in the 1960s. Seligman used the term “learned helplessness” to describe the state of utter passivity prompted by a series of negative events that leads subjects to believe there is nothing they can do to escape their suffering. Seligman conducted his experiments by administering electric shocks to different groups of dogs. When given the chance to avoid their pain, the dogs in his experiment that had been able to escape the shocks did so quickly. Those that couldn’t stop the pain didn’t even try to avoid it, even when given the opportunity. They believed they had no ability to control their fates. They had learned helplessness.
Mitchell and Jessen posited that this theory could be applied to interrogation — that harsh measures could be used to break any resistance of al-Qaida captives by inducing a state of learned helplessness. Torture would “shape compliance” with interrogation, Mitchell and Jessen theorized. Once detainees were abused to the point of learned helplessness, resistance would crumble, and the detainees would divulge information that they might otherwise withhold.
No legitimate science backs up this assumption. Research on inducing a sustained state of learned helplessness in humans through abuse, or on the role of learned helplessness in eliciting truthful information, does not exist for the simple reason that it can’t be legally or ethically conducted....
The CIA program violated not only international and U.S. prohibitions on torture — it also violated the well-established ban on non-consensual human experimentation. The Nuremburg Code, in place since 1947, was the basis for the prosecution and convictions of World War II Nazi doctors. It forbids any research on human subjects without their informed consent. Numerous other treaties and ethics codes include similar bans, recognizing that any experimentation, however benign, on human subjects without their consent or on prisoners, is inherently cruel, inhuman, or degrading.
Mitchell and Jessen, however, were undeterred by law, ethics, or the lessons of history. The torture program they designed and implemented at the behest of the CIA by its very design required ongoing experimentation on its human subjects. They did not know how the detainees would react to the torture techniques they devised, or if the detainees would even survive them. They did not know whether and how much torture would be needed to induce learned helplessness in a particular detainee, or whether once a detainee’s mind was broken, he would produce truthful information. They had, after all, adapted the torture techniques from those used by authoritarian regimes to extract false confessions....
After weeks of debate, and over objections from the State Department, President George W. Bush ultimately issued the final word on the matter. In a February 2002 memo, he stated that al-Qaida and Taliban detainees were not protected by the Geneva Conventions....
Mitchell and Jessen made out handsomely too. From 2001 until 2005, as consultants to the CIA, they made $1.5 and $1.1 million, respectively. In 2005, they formed a company, Mitchell, Jessen & Associates, to supply the CIA with more personnel to help implement and expand their program. Until the termination in 2010 of the CIA’s contract with Mitchell, Jessen & Associates, the company received $81 million for its torture services, financed by the American taxpayer....