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The First Lawsuit Against the Psychologists Who Designed the CIA Torture Program Has Been Filed

Three plaintiffs argue that the interrogation techniques designed by James Mitchell and John "Bruce" Jesse subjected them to torture in a suit filed by the ACLU.

Photo of James Mitchell via VICE News

In a federal suit filed on Tuesday by the American Civil Liberties Union, three plaintiffs argue that the CIA interrogation program designed by psychologists James Mitchell and John "Bruce" Jesse subjected them to torture. The 82-page complaint, written on behalf of two former prisoners and a family member of another who died in custody, is the first legal challenge to the architects of the brutal methods used by the government to extract information from suspected terrorists after 9/11.


According to a 2012 article in the Nation, after 9/11, a bounty system emerged in which African warlords would sell "terror suspects" to the CIA for cash. Suleiman Abdullah, a newlywed fisherman in Tanzania, was captured in March 2003, possibly by the help of one such warlord named "Mr. Tall." He was taken first to Kenya, and then shuffled around to various places in Afghanistan, like a prison called COBALT—where, according to the ACLU, he was assaulted with music by the Irish boyband Westlife alternating with heavy metal and kept in a pitch-black cell that smelled like rotting seaweed. Eventually he was taken to another black site facility called the "Salt Pit" and, finally, an Air Force base. In total, he was held for more than five years without being charged, and was released when it was determined he "[posed] no threat to the United States Armed Forces or its interests in Afghanistan," according to the lawsuit.

Related on VICE News: Psychologist James Mitchell Admits He Waterboarded al Qaeda Suspects

Suleiman told the Nation that his interrogators would take a jug usually used by Muslims for cleansing rituals and stick the spout up his rectum. According to the ACLU, he was once known as "Travolta" because of his prowess on the dance floor, but he returned to Tanzibar a "shell of his former self."

Similarly, Mohamed Ahmed Ben Soud was captured in Pakistan, where he was living in April 2003 as an exile from the Gaddafi regime. He was released in August 2005 without ever being charged and was sent back to his native Libya, where he was then imprisoned until the Gaddafi regime was overthrown in 2011.


The third plaintiff, Gul Rahman, never made it home. He was captured in Pakistan and died in November 2002 of hypothermia while being held at Salt Pit. The lawsuit alleges that psychologist Jessen personally assisted in that interrogation.

Many of these allegations aren't new: Back in December, the Senate Intelligence Committee released its 525-page executive summary of the interrogation program that introduced the public to disturbing concepts like "rectal feeding." Soon after the bombshell report, psychologist Mitchell admitted to waterboarding 9/11 architect Khalid Sheikh Mohammed during an interview with VICE News.

In the Nation article about Suleiman, a legal scholar claimed his options for recourse were scant. But according to the complaint, the Alien Tort Statute, which was first adopted in 1789, allows non-US citizens to file suit here for violations of human rights. The plaintiffs allege torture, degrading treatment, and war crimes.

"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. Psychology is a healing profession, but Mitchell and Jessen violated the ethical code of 'do no harm' in some of the most abhorrent ways imaginable."

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CIA Torture Complaint