A settlement in the lawsuit against two psychologists who helped devise the CIA’s brutal interrogation program was announced today, bringing to an end an unusual effort to hold individuals accountable for the techniques the agency adopted after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Lawyers for the three plaintiffs in the suit, filed in 2015 in U.S. District Court in Spokane, Washington, said the former prisoners were tortured at secret CIA detention sites. The settlement with the psychologists, Dr. Bruce Jessen and Dr. James Mitchell, came after a judge last month urged resolving the case before it headed to a jury trial in early September.
The plaintiffs — two former detainees and the family of a third who died in custody — had sought unspecified punitive and compensatory damages. The terms of the settlement are confidential.
In a phone interview, one of the plaintiffs, Mohamed Ben Soud, said through a translator: “I feel that justice has been served. Our goal from the beginning was justice and for the people to know what happened in this black hole that was run by the CIA’s offices.”
Dror Ladin, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, which helped bring the suit, called the case “a historic victory for our clients and for the rule of law.”
The plaintiffs said that Jessen and Mitchell, former military psychologists, profited from their work as contractors for the CIA. The men received up to $1,800 a day and later formed a company that was paid about $81 million to help operate the interrogation program over several years. Those contracts included indemnity agreements, stating that the U.S. government agreed to pay their legal fees and the amount of any judgment or fine.
James T. Smith, the psychologists’ lead counsel, said in a statement that his clients were “public servants whose actions in regard to the interrogation of suspected terrorists were authorized by the U.S. government, legal and done in an effort to protect innocent lives.”
In an interview, Mitchell said he found it “regrettable that one guy died and those other guys were treated badly,” adding: “We had nothing to do with it. We’re not responsible for it. They say we are, but in my view they’re wrong.”
The psychologists produced a memo in 2002 proposing harsh techniques to be used on terrorism suspects thought to be resisting interrogations. The CIA adopted nearly all of these methods, including waterboarding, stuffing prisoners into small boxes, forcing them to hold painful positions for hours and slamming them into plywood walls.
The enhanced interrogation techniques were based on those used in military survival schools to simulate what service members might undergo if captured by regimes violating the laws of war. They were later condemned as illegal under U.S. and international law and were ultimately banned. The American Psychological Association consequently prohibited its members from participating in national security interrogations.
As a candidate, President Donald Trump said he would bring back waterboarding “and a hell of a lot worse,” but later said he would defer to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ strong opposition — widespread in the military — to torture and prisoner mistreatment.
The case against the psychologists proceeded despite multiple attempts by their lawyers to have it dismissed. They argued that the men acted solely under the authority of the government and were entitled to the same immunity as government officials. The judge, Justin L. Quackenbush, also denied motions by both sides requesting that he rule summarily in their favor before a trial.
The psychologists came into direct contact with only one of the three detainees, Gul Rahman, who died in CIA custody in Afghanistan in 2002, probably of hypothermia, according to an agency investigation into his death.
The judge ruled last week that a trial could also proceed on behalf of the two other former prisoners — Ben Soud and Suleiman Salim — whose lawyers argued that the psychologists had aided and abetted their torture.