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Judge allows torture lawsuit to proceed against CIA contractors

Judge allows torture lawsuit to proceed against CIA contractors
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A federal judge on Friday allowed a civil lawsuit to proceed against two CIA contractors and psychologists who helped build the agency’s brutal interrogation regime, the first such ruling of its kind.

Judge Justin Quackenbush denied an effort to toss out a case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of three people subjected to the harsh techniques, which have been widely condemned as torture. 

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The move is a significant victory for civil liberties advocates, who have long claimed that the two psychologists — James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen — used untested theories of “learned helplessness” to subject suspected terrorists to brutal treatment such as waterboarding and sleep deprivation.

Now, Jessen and Mitchell will likely have to give sworn depositions about their roles developing the programs, known as "enhanced interrogation techniques." The former detainees subjected to the treatment will also likely be asked to provide testimony.  

The case is expected to shed further light on a dark chapter of the CIA’s history and may yield monetary damages for the former detainees.

Lawyers will have 30 days to hammer out a plan for the evidence-gathering process.

The psychologists’ role in devising the program was rigorously documented in the public version of a Senate Intelligence Committee report released in late 2014, which painted a scathing portrait of the spy agency’s interrogation program.

The former Air Force psychologists, to whom the Senate report gave the pseudonyms Grayson Swigert and Hammond Dunbar, “had never participated in a real-world interrogation” before their CIA contracts, the report claims, but nonetheless approached the CIA with plans of their own.   

“[T]he CIA did not seek out SWIGERT and DUNBAR after a decision was made to use coercive interrogation techniques; rather, SWIGERT and DUNBAR played a role in convincing the CIA to adopt such a policy," the report said.

Mitchell and Jessen were paid $81 million for their work.

Gul Rahman, one of the three former detainees named in the case, died while in custody at the notorious “Salt Pit” prison in Afghanistan in 2002. According to the Senate committee’s report, he died while shackled to a wall and wearing only a sweatshirt, likely of hypothermia.

The other two former detainees in the case are Suleiman Abdullah Salim and Mohamed Ahmed Ben Soud.

Unlike in previous cases, the Justice Department declined to step in to block the case from proceeding in the days leading up to Friday’s hearing in Spokane, Wash. The Justice Department’s notable silence was interpreted as a change in tack by the Obama administration. The president banned the George W. Bush-era CIA interrogation program after taking office, following years of public outrage.

Quackenbush was nomination to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington by former President Jimmy Carter.