In a move described as “unprecedented” by a Justice Department attorney, four current and former Central Intelligence Agency employees, including two top officials, will be called to testify in a civil case against former CIA psychologist contractors who were involved in the Agency’s infamous torture program, a federal judge ruled this week.
CIA personnel who will face questions from the American Civil Liberties Union include the Agency’s former top lawyer John Rizzo as well as Jose Rodriguez, who formerly headed the CIA Counterterrorism Center. The ACLU brought the case against former CIA contract psychologists James Mitchell and John “Bruce” Jessen on behalf of Suleiman Abdullah Salim, Mohamed Ahmed Ben Soud and Gul Rahman, three men who were subjected to the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” torture techniques.
“Torture methods devised by Mitchell and Jessen and inflicted on the three men include slamming them into walls, stuffing them inside coffin-like boxes, exposing them to extreme temperatures, starving them, inflicting various kinds of water torture, and chaining them in stress positions designed for pain and to keep them awake for days on end,” wrote ACLU staff attorney Dror Ladin in a statement about the ruling. “The two plaintiffs who survived still suffer physically and psychologically from the effects of their torture. The third, Gul Rahman, died of hypothermia in a CIA secret prison.”
The reaction to the decision to require depositions from the CIA officials bordered on disbelief in some circles.
“It is, frankly, unprecedented — and that word gets thrown around quite a bit — but unprecedented for the nation’s top spy, (Rodriguez, formerly) the head of the National Clandestine Service, to be deposed on operational information by a private party. I don’t think that’s ever happened in the history of this country,” Justice Department attorney Andrew Warden said, according to the ACLU.
While Mitchell and Jessen are the ones on trial, the CIA officials are actually being called to testify at the request of the psychologists, in a case that potentially could provide a template for finding ways to hold the government responsible for certain categories of its misdeeds. McClatchy reports:
The lawsuit represents a new approach to seeking accountability for the CIA’s Rendition, Detention and Interrogation program. It is the first to rely extensively on the Senate Intelligence Committee’s five-year, $40 million investigation into the agency’s top-secret effort to unearth terrorist plots after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Previous suits filed by former detainees were brought against the CIA. All were thrown out after the government cited official immunity and the state secrets privilege – a government claim that contends the disclosure of certain evidence would harm national security.
In contrast, the federal judge in Spokane, Washington, where Mitchell and Jessen founded a firm that the CIA hired to run the program, has indicated he will allow it to proceed. A trial has been set for next June.
Mitchell and Jessen contend that they were just doing their jobs, and seek to prove as much by deposing the CIA officials. “I’m just a guy who got asked to do something for his country by people at the highest level of the government and I did the best that I could,” Mitchell reportedly said in 2014.
Those claims, however, seem dubious. “According to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation into the torture program, Mitchell and Jessen helped convince the CIA to adopt torture as official policy, making millions of dollars in the process,” writes Ladin of the ACLU. “The two men, who had previously worked as psychologists for the U.S. military, designed the torture methods and performed illegal human experimentation on CIA prisoners to test and refine the program. They personally took part in torture sessions and helped implement the program for the CIA.” Ladin also notes that beyond “torturing prisoners themselves, Mitchell and Jessen trained and supervised other CIA personnel in their methods.”
If Mitchell and Jessen really did commit the heinous crimes of psychological and medical abuse they’ve been accused of in devising and carrying out torture techniques, however, they aren’t the first outside professionals to get in over their heads with the CIA and its appetite for human experimentation and gravely unethical behavioral research. From Operation Paperclip to MK-ULTRA to “enhanced interrogation,” the Agency has has been pushing these sorts of sordid schemes since its founding, and, unfortunately, they have only been getting increasingly outrageous as the years go by.