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The CIA's torture masterminds finally have to pay their victims

Two psychologists who designed and personally carried out the CIA’s post-9/11 torture program settled a lawsuit Thursday filed by two men who were subjected to the so-called “enhanced interrogation” techniques, along with the family of a third man who died after being tortured at a CIA black site in Afghanistan.

The psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, were reportedly paid at least $75 million by the U.S. government for their work on the torture program. The terms of the settlement were not disclosed.


The case was scheduled to go before a jury on September 5, but the settlement allows Mitchell and Jessen to avoid a trial, which could have led to more disclosures about their gruesome torture techniques. The psychologists also risked being held personally liable for substantial damages if the jury ruled against them. Past lawsuits over the CIA’s torture program were dismissed when the Bush and Obama administrations intervened and argued that national security would be compromised if the cases were allowed to proceed.

The lawsuit, filed by the ACLU on behalf of the three torture victims and viewable in full below, alleged that Mitchell and Jessen “designed, implemented, and personally administered an experimental torture program” for the CIA.

“To create a torture program with a scientific veneer, defendants drew on experiments from the 1960s in which researchers taught dogs ‘helplessness’ by subjecting them to uncontrollable pain,” the lawsuit states. “Defendants theorized that if human beings were subjected to systematic abuse, the victims would become helpless and unable to resist an interrogator’s demand for information.”

The plaintiffs were allegedly 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.”

“This is a historic victory for our clients and the rule of law,” ACLU attorney Dror Ladin said in a statement. “This outcome 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.”


Mitchell was the subject of “The Architect,” an Emmy-nominated VICE News documentary released in 2014. He later told us that he was the interrogator who personally waterboarded 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the al Qaeda facilitator Abu Zubaydah, and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the suspected mastermind of the USS Cole bombing.

Mitchell, a CIA contractor and retired Air Force psychologist, has repeatedly defended his work and blasted what he called a “biased” Senate report on the torture program.

“We got an opportunity to see a variety of people — all kinds of races, all kinds of intelligence, all kinds of backgrounds — attempting to withhold actionable intelligence,” Mitchell told VICE News in 2014. He said he’d like to “set the record straight,” but he couldn’t offer more details because of a non-disclosure agreement with the CIA.

One of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit was Suleiman Abdullah Salim, a Tanzanian citizen who was captured in early 2003 in Somalia by the CIA and Kenyan security forces. A fisherman and trader by profession, Salim was tortured at CIA black sites in Afghanistan, including one called the “Salt Pit.” He was imprisoned at Bagram Air Force Base until 2008, when he was released and handed a memo from the Pentagon that said he posed “no threat” to the U.S.

Another plaintiff, Mohamed Ahmed Ben Soud, was a Libyan citizen who was captured in 2003 while living in exile from the Gaddafi regime in Pakistan. He was held at secret CIA prisons in Afghanistan until August 2005, when he was released and handed over to Gaddafi’s security forces, who imprisoned him until the regime’s overthrow in 2011. He was never charged with a crime by the U.S.

The third plaintiff represented the estate of Gul Rahman, an Afghan citizen who was detained by the CIA in November 2002 while he was living in Pakistan. A suspected Al Qaeda operative, Rahman died later that month at the “Salt Pit” black site in Afghanistan. As reported by VICE News, he was subjected to “48 hours of sleep deprivation, auditory overload, total darkness, isolation, a cold shower, and rough treatment.” Jessen participated in Rahman’s interrogation but left the site shortly before his death. Rahman was found chained to the wall in his cell and naked from the waist down, and a CIA autopsy concluded that he “likely” froze to death. He is survived by his wife and four daughters.

“We brought this case seeking accountability and to help ensure that no one else has to endure torture and abuse, and we feel that we have achieved our goals,” the plaintiffs said in a statement. “We were able to tell the world about horrific torture, the CIA had to release secret records, and the psychologists and high-level CIA officials were forced to answer our lawyers’ questions. It has been a long, difficult road, but we are very pleased with the results.”