ACLU Sues Psychologists Who Designed and Ran CIA Torture Program

Lawsuit Filed on Behalf of Three Victims of CIA Torture, Alleges War Crimes and Unlawful Human Experimentation

October 13, 2015 7:00 am

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SPOKANE, Wash. — Three former Central Intelligence Agency prisoners represented by the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit today against the two psychologists who designed and implemented the CIA’s torture program.

The CIA-contracted psychologists, James Mitchell and John “Bruce” Jessen, helped convince the agency to adopt torture as official policy, making millions of dollars in the process. The two men, who had previously worked for the U.S. military, designed the torture methods and performed illegal human experimentation on CIA prisoners to test and refine the program. They personally took part in torture sessions and oversaw the program’s implementation for the CIA.

The lawsuit was brought on behalf of three men — Gul Rahman, Suleiman Abdullah Salim, and Mohamed Ahmed Ben Soud — who were tortured using methods developed by Mitchell and Jessen, as detailed in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s landmark report on CIA torture. The U.S. has never charged or accused the victims of any crime. One of them was tortured to death, and the other two are now free.

“Mitchell and Jessen conspired with the CIA to torture these three men and many others,” said 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.”

Torture methods devised by Mitchell and Jessen and inflicted on the three men include slamming them into walls, stuffing them inside coffin-like boxes, exposing them to extreme temperatures and ear-splitting levels of music, starving them, inflicting various kinds of water torture, depriving them of sleep for days, and chaining them in stress positions designed for pain and to keep them awake for days on end. The two victims who survived still suffer physically and psychologically from the effects of their torture.

The plaintiffs include the family of Gul Rahman, who died because of torture. He was an Afghan refugee living in Pakistan with his wife and their four daughters, making a living selling wood to fellow residents of their refugee camp. While in Islamabad for a medical checkup in 2002, Rahman was abducted in a joint U.S.-Pakistani operation and rendered to a CIA “black site” in Afghanistan. According to the Senate report, Rahman was tortured by a team of CIA interrogators that included Jessen and died in his cell. An autopsy and internal CIA review found the cause of death to be hypothermia caused “in part by being forced to sit on the bare concrete floor without pants,” with the contributing factors of “dehydration, lack of food, and immobility due to ‘short chaining.’” The family has never been officially notified of his death, and his body has never been returned to them for burial.

Another plaintiff is Suleiman Abdullah Salim, a fisherman from Tanzania. He had recently married a Somali woman and was doing business in Somalia when he was abducted by the CIA. He was then rendered to two of the agency’s black site prisons in Afghanistan, where he was held and tortured for over a year before being transferred to Bagram Air Force Base. The U.S. military released him over five years after his abduction with a letter acknowledging that he poses no threat to the United States. He now lives in Zanzibar with his wife and three-year-old daughter.

“The terrible torture I suffered at the hands of the CIA still haunts me. I still have flashbacks, but I’ve learned to deal with them with a psychologist who tries to help people, not hurt them.” said Salim. “This lawsuit is about achieving justice. No person should ever have to endure the horrors that these two men inflicted.”

The third plaintiff is Mohamed Ahmed Ben Soud. He fled his native Libya in 1991, fearing persecution for his opposition to Muammar Qaddafi’s dictatorship. In 2003, Ben Soud was captured in a joint U.S.-Pakistani raid on his home and sent to two secret CIA prisons in Afghanistan, where he was held and tortured for over two years. Ben Soud saw Mitchell in the first of these prisons, later identifying him as a man present in a room where CIA interrogators were torturing him by forcibly submerging him in ice water. In 2005, the CIA sent him to Libya, where he was tortured and sentenced to life imprisonment after a sham trial. Ben Soud was freed in 2011 after Gaddafi was deposed, and he now lives with his wife and three children.

In addition to torturing prisoners themselves, Mitchell and Jessen trained and supervised other CIA personnel in their methods. In 2005, they founded a company — Mitchell, Jessen & Associates — that the CIA contracted with to run its entire torture program, including supplying interrogators and security for black sites and rendition operations. According to the Senate report, the government paid the company $81 million over several years. The CIA let Mitchell and Jessen themselves evaluate the effectiveness of their torture in “breaking” detainees, and the agency has since admitted that this was a mistake.

Citing experiments conducted on dogs in the 1960s, Mitchell and Jessen proposed to the CIA a program based on the intentional infliction of intense pain and suffering, both physical and mental. In the 1960s’ experiments, dogs were subjected to random electric shocks, and they eventually collapsed into a passive state termed “learned helplessness.” According to Mitchell and Jessen’s theory, if humans were psychologically destroyed through torture and abuse, they would become totally unable to resist demands for information. Mitchell and Jessen invented different “phases” of the torture process with the aim of breaking down prisoners into a state of “learned helplessness” in a systematized fashion.

“These psychologists devised and supervised an experiment to degrade human beings and break their bodies and minds,” said Dror Ladin, a staff attorney with the ACLU National Security Project. “It was cruel and unethical, and it violated a prohibition against human experimentation that has been in place since World War II.”

The CIA adopted Mitchell and Jessen’s proposals, and in August of 2002, the agency secured Justice Department authorization in the so-called “torture memos,” which were later rescinded by the Justice Department.

The lawsuit was filed in federal court in Washington State, where Mitchell, Jessen & Associates was based and where Jessen still lives. The plaintiffs are suing Mitchell and Jessen under the Alien Tort Statute — which allows federal lawsuits for gross human rights violations — for their commission of torture; cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment; non-consensual human experimentation; and war crimes.

The attorneys on the case are Steven Watt, Dror Ladin, Hina Shamsi, and Jameel Jaffer of the ACLU and La Rond Baker of the ACLU of Washington.

Today’s complaint is at:

Videos, graphics, and more information are at:


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