Why a Washington judge allowed a CIA torture lawsuit to proceed

The lawsuit claims two Washington state psychologists devised an interrogation program for the CIA after 9/11.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Central Intelligence Director (CIA) Director John Brennan gestures during a news conference at CIA Headquarters in Langley, Va.

In an unprecedented move a federal judge will allow a lawsuit filed against two psychologists who were contracted to help the US spy agency develop an interrogation regime for suspected terrorists.

The suit alleges that despite having no expertise on Al Qaeda, the two Washington state psychologists devised an interrogation program that drew from 1960s experiments involving dogs and a theory called “learned helplessness.” The interrogation techniques included slamming prisoners into walls, stuffing them inside coffin-like boxes, exposing them to extreme temperatures, starving them, and depriving them of sleep for days. The torture inflicted suffering and trauma that the victims continue to endure up to this day, the lawsuit claims.

The decision to allow the lawsuit, filed last October on behalf of three former CIA prisoners, gives an initial victory to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) which has long sought justice for the dozens of victims of the interrogation techniques.

But more notable in rulling was the Justice Department noninterference in the lawsuit, marking the first time such a lawsuit has gone forward. Previously, both the Obama and Bush administrations have blocked similar lawsuits from proceeding by often invoking the state-secrets privilege, which allows the government to block release of any information in a lawsuit that, if disclosed, would be dangerous to national security. The Justice Department did however submit a filing saying it wanted to make sure that certain classified information including, the identities of interrogators and locations of detention sites, remained secret.

The Justice Department noninterference isn’t exactly because it chose to do so. The government’s ability to invoke the state-secrets privilege is now limited due to a Senate Intelligence Committee 2014 report  – now public – that details the extent of the CIA methods and mentions the three prisoners as well as the psychologists that were responsible for developing the methods. The 500-page executive summary also reveals that the torture program was more extreme than thought, and yet didn’t yield any helpful intelligence.

“There have been so many cases brought by torture victims ... and not one of them has been able to go forward, for shameful reasons,” Hina Shamsi, an ACLU lawyer on the case, told reporters outside the courtroom after the hearing, the Huffington Post reported. “This is a very big deal for our clients.”

Though President Barack Obama outlawed the use of torture when he took office, his administration hasn’t prosecuted any individuals that were responsible for developing and implementing the CIA program. The interrogation program came under scrutiny in the final years of President Bush. The ACLU says that the program tortured up to 119 men from 2002 until 2008.

The defense team argued that the two psychologists should be granted immunity, because CIA agents have immunity but ACLU lawyers point out that the two were contractors, not CIA employees, and shouldn't get immunity.

The ACLU seeks $75,000 in damages for the victims, Suleiman Abdullah Salim, a Tanzanian abducted by the CIA and Kenyan security forces in Somalia in 2003 and Mohamed Ahmed Ben Soud, a Libyan captured in a US-Pakistani raid, and Gul Rahman, an Afghan national who died in 2002 in CIA custody.

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