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ACLU Reaches Confidential Settlement in CIA Detainee Torture Lawsuit

by Derek Gilna

Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) entered into a confidential settlement with the CIA over “a torture program” designed and used against military detainees by two contractors, psychologists James Elmer Mitchell and John “Bruce” Jessen.

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington in October 2015, claimed the defendants created “a torture program with a scientific veneer” – including “enhanced interrogation techniques” like waterboarding, a practice now banned by the CIA.

Plaintiffs Suleiman Abdullah Salim and Mohamed Ahmed Ben Soud argued they suffered “lasting psychological and physical damage from this torture,” to which a third detainee, Gul Rahman, also was subjected before he died. Rahman’s estate was a party to the lawsuit and settlement.

According to the complaint, the three detainees “were subjected to solitary confinement, extreme darkness, cold, and noise; repeated beatings; starvation; excruciatingly painful stress positions; prolonged sleep deprivation; confinement in coffin-like boxes; and water torture.”

The ACLU noted that “all three [plaintiffs] were kidnapped by the CIA, and tortured and experimented upon according to Mitchell and Jessen’s protocols,” and that Rahman had “died as a result of his torture.”

The settlement by the two psychologists marks the first successful attempt to hold anyone accountable for the CIA’s torture of detainees – a task made more difficult by the fact that the incidents occurred at secret detention sites outside the United States.

The U.S. Department of Justice took steps to safeguard sensitive information from being revealed in court documents during the litigation, but did not get involved either in prosecuting or defending the former CIA contractors.

ACLU attorney Dror Ladin said the settlement in the case “shows that there are consequences for torture and that survivors can and will hold those responsible for torture accountable.”

“It is a clear warning for anyone who thinks they can torture with impunity,” Ladin added – although the confidential nature of the settlement makes it less of a deterrent.

Rahman was abducted from his home in Pakistan and taken to a detention site in his native Afghanistan in 2002. Stripped naked, beaten, dunked in cold water and shackled to the floor in an isolation cell in freezing weather, he died of hypothermia a few weeks later. Salim, from Tanzania, and Ben Soud, from Libya, were tortured and released after it was eventually determined they posed no threat to the U.S.

Psychologists Mitchell and Jessen, who are based in Spokane, Washington, were doing only what the U.S. government authorized, according to their attorney, James T. Smith.

“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,” Smith said.

After three unsuccessful attempts to have the lawsuit dismissed, it was settled shortly before a trial was scheduled to begin on September 5, 2017.

Jessen stood by his actions, saying he “served our country at a time when freedom and safety hung in the balance.”

Mitchell agreed, stating he was “confident” that what he did was “necessary, legal and helped save countless lives.”

They were initially retained as government contractors to train pilots at the Air Force’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) school, to resist interrogation and torture. The CIA then hired them to reverse their methods in order to “break” suspects apprehended in the so-called war on terror.

The settlement agreement included the release of a joint statement in which Mitchell and Jesson were allowed to maintain they were not directly involved in the torture of detainees – even though U.S. District Court Judge Justin L. Quackenbush found they had personally conducted waterboarding of the CIA’s first detainee after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Abu Zubayadah.

Nevertheless, plaintiff Ben Soud insisted that “justice has been served.”

“Our goal from the beginning was justice and for the people to know what happened in this black hole that was run by the CIA’s offices,” he said.

A 2012 report by the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee, released in redacted form in December 2014, found no information of value had resulted from the work performed by the psychologists. [See: PLN, Nov. 2016, p.54]. Jessen and Mitchell collected $81 million from the federal government before the Obama administration finally ended their contract in 2009.

By the terms of the settlement, the amount of any monetary damages paid to Ben Soud and Salim, and to Rahman’s estate, will remain confidential. Due to an indemnification agreement entered into by the government when Mitchell and Jessen’s contract was terminated, their legal bills were covered by U.S. taxpayers. 

Sources: Politico, The New York Times,


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