Doctors Who Designed CIA Torture Programs Finally Get Sued

Photo: Richard Ross/Getty Images.
The prisoners were held in pitch-dark cells in a secret CIA facility. As part of their torture regimen, they were forced to listen to music — everything from heavy metal to the theme song from Barney & Friends — blasted at ear-damaging levels, designed to break them psychologically. Now, years later, the doctors who designed that program are getting sued, in litigation filed by the ACLU.

In the early 2000s, the CIA contracted with two psychologists, James Mitchell and John Bruce Jessen, to help them design interrogation methods for detainees held in secret prisons in places such as Afghanistan. The methods Mitchell and Jessen designed included "stuffing them inside coffin-like boxes, exposing them to extreme temperatures and ear-splitting levels of music, starving them," and depriving them of sleep, according to the Senate's report on CIA torture. If it wasn't bad enough that the men who were held in these secret detention sites were tortured repeatedly, a recent report on the CIA's torture program found that it didn't even lead to useful information.

To this day the two men have received no apologies or compensation for their ordeal.

Two survivors and the family of a man who was killed in Afghanistan's notorious "Salt Pit" prison site are suing Mitchell and Jessen for designing and performing experiments on them that have left them suffering years after they were freed. Suleiman Abdullah Salim and Mohamed Ahmed Ben Soud were both tortured for years, and to this day they have received no apologies or compensation for their ordeal. The family of Gul Rahman, an Afghan man who died of hypothermia while in secret custody, has never received his body.

Although other prisoners have filed lawsuits over their treatment by U.S. agents, this is the first legal action taken against the healthcare professionals who created torture methods and trained the CIA to use them. It's also the first lawsuit filed by former prisoners since the Senate released a 525-page summary of its report on the torture program, and ACLU lawyer Dror Ladin told Refinery29 that the details now available to the public will make Suleiman's and Ben Soud's cases stronger. "Previous lawsuits involving the CIA torture program had a lot less public information to work with," Ladin said, and the government was able to keep enough information secret that it was all but impossible for former detainees to make their cases.

Our single biggest concern is that there has been zero accountability for the torture program.

Dror Ladin, staff attorney, ACLU National Security Project
Suleiman lives in Zanzibar now with his family, and despite suffering through hours of painfully loud music — everything from metal to the Irish boy band Westlife — he uses Bob Marley songs to calm himself when he starts to have flashbacks to his time in detention.

"Our single biggest concern is that there has been zero accountability for the torture program," said Ladin. "Without that — when you have impunity for torturers, when you don’t even apologize to the victims of it — it’s difficult to see how we’re not going to have history repeat itself in the future. We can just look forward without accounting for what we did in the past. We run a tremendous risk of going down this path."

One of the strangest things about the two psychologists who designed the program is that they not only received $81 million in government money for teaching people how to inflict physical and psychological damage on others, but they've also never faced any penalties for violating professional ethics. "It's mind-boggling that ethics complaints against them never went anywhere," Ladin said.

What would success look like for these men? "A successful outcome would be that this case goes forward, and these three victims and survivors get their day in court and get to tell their story," Ladin says. "A further success would be when these obvious violations of international law, that a judge and jury agree that these plaintiffs should receive some compensation for it."

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