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Federal Judge Clears Lawsuit Against CIA Torture Program To Proceed


For the first time ever, a lawsuit over the torture of CIA prisoners is moving forward. It involves two psychologists based in Spokane, Wash. They were contracted by the CIA to design its notorious interrogation program. They're now being sued by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of three former CIA prisoners. NPR's David Welna has the story.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Suleiman Abdullah Salim is a Tanzanian fisherman whom the CIA abducted in 2003 and imprisoned in Afghanistan. Years later, after being released with no charges against him, Salim describes his 17-month ordeal in CIA captivity, much of it spent hanging by his arms, naked.

SULEIMAN ABDULLAH SALIM: So much cold and you have no clothes. So much cold, so much pain, so much pain. Until now I have a back problem, until now.

WELNA: Salim is one of the three plaintiffs in the ACLU lawsuit. Another is a Libyan, also released with no charges. The third is a relative of Gul Rahman, an Afghan who died in CIA captivity. Like the others, Rahman's previously classified case became public in a report by the Senate Intelligence Committee a year and a half ago. This is the first civil lawsuit based on that report's revelations. California Democrat Dianne Feinstein chaired the intelligence panel at the time. On the Senate floor, she described Rahman's demise.


DIANNE FEINSTEIN: An otherwise healthy detainee who was being held mostly nude and chained to a concrete floor died at the facility from what is believed to have been hypothermia.

WELNA: Feinstein also described the CIA contracting two psychologists and paying them more than $80 million to develop a list of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques, which others have called torture.


FEINSTEIN: The interrogations of CI detainees were absolutely brutal, far worse than the CIA represented them to policymakers and others.

WELNA: But it's not the CIA being sued here. It's those two psychologists, Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell. Stephen Vladeck is a national security lawyer at American University who's been following this case closely.

STEPHEN VLADECK: What this case reveals is how much easier it is to sue private individuals, to sue contractors, than it is, in this context, to sue the government itself or to sue government employees, military personnel, CIA officers, et cetera.

WELNA: James Mitchell declined to comment on the lawsuit. But just days after the Senate intelligence, Panel's report came out, he insisted on Fox News he'd done nothing wrong.


JAMES MITCHELL: I was told by the highest law enforcement agency in the land that we were going to walk right up to the edge of the law and that all the things that we had included in that list were legal.

WELNA: That list's brutal methods would supposedly induce a state of learned helplessness. They included waterboarding, to which alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed was subjected 183 times.


MITCHELL: Khalid Sheik Mohammed told me personally, your country will turn on you. The liberal media will turn on you. The people will grow tired of this. They will turn on you. And when they do, you are going to be abandoned. Well, I don't feel abandoned by the CIA. They didn't throw me under the bus.

WELNA: The Justice Department has blocked every other torture lawsuit by invoking the state's secrets privilege. But this time, it did nothing to prevent the hearing here in Spokane.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: This has repercussions.

WELNA: There were demonstrators outside the federal courthouse before Friday's hearing. Seventy-four-year-old Michael Pooler is with the group Vets For Peace.

MICHAEL POOLER: So far, nobody's been held accountable for torture, which is illegal under every possible law in the world. And this is the first opportunity to say, hey, these guys kicked it off. Let's see what we can do about getting them held responsible.

WELNA: In the hearing, Federal District Court Judge Justin Quackenbush flatly rejected the defense team's motion to dismiss the case. Defense attorney James Smith said afterward he was not surprised.

JAMES SMITH: We continue to be optimistic that we'll prevail. But, you know, we've got some work ahead of us.

WELNA: Outside the same courthouse, ACLU attorney Hina Shamsi hailed the judge's ruling as unprecedented.

HINA SHAMSI: Case after case has been brought on behalf of torture victims both of the military and the CIA. None has gone forward. Today is the first time that one will go forward.

WELNA: The judge gave both sides 30 days to decide how to share information, some possibly still classified. That could lead to this case advancing to the trial stage. David Welna, NPR News, Spokane, Wash. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna
David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.
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