The ACLU Is Suing Two Psychologists Over The CIA's Torture Program

The suit alleges that the two men broke international law in helping build the program a Senate report has called torture.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed suit on Tuesday against two psychologists they claim helped the CIA develop a program that the Senate has referred to as torture.

The plaintiffs in the case are three men — Suleiman Abdullah Salim, Gul Rahman, and Mohamed Ahmed Ben Soud — that the CIA allegedly held at its black-site in Afghanistan, codenamed "Cobalt." Rahman died of hypothermia while in CIA custody. Cobalt was featured prominently in the damning report the Senate Intelligence committee released last year over the CIA's objections.

Among the actions the CIA allegedly took to try to break Salim included playing "a syrupy song called 'Coast to Coast'" from an Irish boyband interspersed "with heavy metal, played on repeat at ear-splitting volume." The interrogators also, according to the ACLU, doused him with ice cold water, deprived him of sleep, and hung him from a metal rod, "his feet barely touching the ground."

The suit alleges that psychologists James Elmer Mitchell and John "Bruce" Jessen developed the program of mental and physical stress used on the plaintiffs based on studies of how to teach "helplessness" to dogs. The suit says that the CIA then used these techniques to torture detainees in the hunt for information in the war on terror. The ACLU suit accuses the defendants of being complicit in torture, experimenting on humans, and war crimes.

The CIA interrogation program worked in two phases: "standard"/"conditioning" and "enhanced"/"aggressive." In the first phase, detainees would be subjected to conditions like solitary confinement, constant extreme light or darkness, and food deprivation. In the "aggressive" phase, subjects could be placed into diapers, put into stress positions, slammed into walls, or have non-stinging insects used against them.

In all, the complaint alleges, the two psychologists were paid $81 million for their role in the CIA's program, the harshest parts of which continued into late 2007. "Defendants and the CIA subjected at least 119 individuals to either the partial or
full phased program," the complaint reads. "Plaintiffs are among 39 individuals who were experimented on and subjected by Defendants and the CIA to the most coercive methods of torture."

The suit was filed in the state of Washington, where Mitchell and Jessen reside, and was brought under the Alien Tort Statue, which allows foreign nationals — such as Salim, who is a Tanzanian citizen who was rendered in Somalia, and Ben Soud, a Libyan who was living in exile in Pakistan when captured by the U.S. — to bring suits in U.S. courts.

In 2010, the Associated Press reported that a secret agreement with the CIA would provide up to $5 million in legal fees for Jessen and Mitchell. "The deal is even more generous than the protections the agency typically provides its own officers, giving the two men access to more money to finance their defense," the report read.

“Mitchell and Jessen conspired with the CIA to torture these three men and many others,” Steven Watt, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU Human Rights Program, said in a statement. “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.”

“Psychologists have an ethical responsibility to 'do no harm,' but Mitchell and Jessen’s actions rank among the worst medical crimes in U.S. history,” Donna McKay, executive director of Physicians for Human Rights, said in an emailed statement supporting the ACLU case. “A comprehensive investigation is needed regarding the complicity of Mitchell and Jessen and all other health professionals in U.S. torture. The public’s trust in the healing professions can only be restored through accountability.”