WASHINGTON -- Three former CIA detainees are suing over being tortured at the agency's infamous "black sites," the first suit to seek accountability in a U.S. court for the CIA's tactics since the Senate Intelligence Committee released the executive summary of its groundbreaking torture report. But the ex-detainees aren't suing the CIA.
They’re suing the pair that sold the spies the program.
James Mitchell and John “Bruce” Jessen are former CIA-contract psychologists who raked in more than $80 million developing and running the torture program on the agency's behalf. The suit accuses the duo of war crimes, including commissioning torture, human experimentation and supporting cruel and inhumane treatment.
Mitchell and Jessen, who previously served as psychologists at the U.S. Air Force’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape school, devised several SERE methods into an interrogation program following the 9/11 attacks.
The suit was filed Tuesday in federal court in the state of Washington, where Jessen currently resides and where the program was developed.
Steven Watt, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing the former detainees, said the Senate report on the torture program is "really why our clients are able to pursue this case.”
“It’s the first post-Senate report effort on accountability in U.S. courts,” he said.
The three former detainees -- Gul Rahman, Suleiman Abdullah Salim and Mohamed Ahmed Ben Soud -- were all held at secret CIA prisons overseas and subjected to techniques developed by Mitchell and Jessen. Rahman, an Afghan national who was living in Pakistan at the time of his capture, died in a secret CIA prison in Afghanistan known as the Salt Pit. A 2012 Justice Department probe ended in a decision not to press charges for his death. Rahman's family, which was never formally notified of his death nor given his body, is bringing the suit in his name.
Salim, who is Tanzanian, and Ben Soud, who is from Libya, were both subjected to solitary confinement, which involved interrogation methods such as time locked in coffin-like boxes, sleep deprivation and water torture.
“The terrible torture I suffered at the hands of the CIA still haunts me. I still have flashbacks, but I’ve learned to deal with them with a psychologist who tries to help people, not hurt them,” Salim said, according to an ACLU press release. “This lawsuit is about achieving justice. No person should ever have to endure the horrors that these two men inflicted.”
In 2005, the psychologists established Mitchell, Jessen & Associates, which the CIA contracted to develop the torture program, train interrogators and oversee the program’s operation. The company collected more than $80 million dollars from the U.S. government over several years.
Jessen has largely disappeared from the public eye, but Mitchell, who is retired and now lives in Florida, re-emerged following the December 2014 release of the executive summary of the Senate report, a yearslong investigation that detailed many of the CIA’s horrific tactics, including waterboarding, sleep deprivation and rectal feeding. Mitchell, who gave an extensive interview to Vice after the executive summary came out, continues to defend the harsh methods.
But Watt thinks the lawsuit might bring a reckoning for Mitchell and his fellow torture defenders.
“To speak to them and then hear their stories, and hear Mitchell still saying publicly what he did, he would do it again -- I think if he sat down and he heard their stories, maybe he might change his view,” Watt said.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Mitchell and Jessen worked at the U.S. Army's SERE school. They worked at the U.S. Air Force's SERE school.