The American Civil Liberties Union sued two psychologists on behalf of former detainees — one of whom died in custody — who claim they were tortured in CIA prisons in Afghanistan.
SPOKANE — A federal judge has refused to dismiss a lawsuit against two psychologists who designed the CIA’s harsh interrogation methods used on terror detainees, pushing them closer to a trial that is expected to include secret information.
The American Civil Liberties Union sued James Mitchell and John “Bruce” Jessen on behalf of three former detainees, Gul Rahman, who died in custody, and Suleiman Abdullah Salim and Mohamed Ahmed Ben Soud, who claim they were tortured in CIA prisons in Afghanistan.
Trial is set for June in the lawsuit saying the psychologists’ Spokane company contracted with the spy agency to develop interrogation methods such as waterboarding.
The judge’s decision comes as President Trump declared this week that he believes torture works on terror suspects but that he would defer to his defense secretary, retired Gen. James Mattis, who has questioned the effectiveness of practices such as waterboarding, which simulates drowning.
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U.S. District Judge Justin Quackenbush rejected arguments that the psychologists acted as agents of the federal government, which could make them immune from lawsuits.
He also ruled that Mitchell and Jessen failed to prove that the former detainees had officially been named as enemy combatants, which would block them from pursuing a claim.
“None of the three plaintiffs was determined by a Combatant Status Review Tribunal to be an ‘enemy combatant,’ ” the judge wrote of the military proceedings that determine if a detainee was a combatant against the U.S.
Rahman died in prison two weeks after being detained. The other two detainees were never charged with any crimes and are now free.
Mitchell and Jessen designed the interrogation methods and took part in sessions with CIA prisoners, according to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation into the torture program.
Techniques included slamming the three men into walls, stuffing them inside coffinlike boxes, exposing them to extreme temperatures, starving them, inflicting various kinds of water torture, chaining them in stress positions designed for pain and keeping them awake for days, the ACLU said.
The psychologists have said in court documents that they used harsh tactics but denied allegations of torture and war crimes.
The Justice Department got involved in the case to represent the government’s interests in keeping classified information secret but has not tried to block the lawsuit. Experts called the government’s stance unprecedented but also a recognition that a once-secret program is now largely out in the open.
The defendants founded Mitchell, Jessen & Associates in Spokane in 2005 and contracted with the CIA to run the interrogation program. The government paid the company $81 million over several years.