For the first time, a federal judge is letting a civil lawsuit proceed against two CIA contract psychologists who designed and supervised brutal interrogation tactics that critics called torture.
The ruling allows two former CIA detainees and the family of another who died in agency custody to try to win damages in federal court for the abuse they suffered at then-secret CIA prisons in the early 2000s.
In a ruling from the bench at federal district court in Spokane, Wash., Senior Judge Justin L. Quackenbush said he would deny a motion to dismiss the lawsuit against James E. Mitchell and Bruce Jessen.
According to the lawsuit and a Senate Intelligence Committee report, the mistreatment included waterboarding, sleep deprivation, confinement in small boxes, rectal feeding and beatings.
Quackenbush gave the parties 30 days to submit plans to request documents, gather sworn statements and collect evidence for the case.
As the lawsuit progresses, it may shed more light on the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques that the CIA used in an effort to collect intelligence about Al Qaeda operations and future plots after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
"It's unprecedented," Dror Ladin, the American Civil Liberties Union attorney who argued the plaintiffs' case in court Friday, said in a telephone interview from Spokane. "No CIA torture victim has ever taken this step toward accountability. Every previous lawsuit has been shut down before this stage.
"It gives our clients a chance to prove their claims and finally get some justice," he said.
The Department of Justice had blocked previous lawsuits aimed at the CIA's now-barred detention and interrogation program on grounds that any case could reveal secrets and compromise national security.
That changed after the Senate Intelligence Committee released a report in December 2014 that exposed details about the program, including the role played by Jessen and Mitchell. The two were referred to by pseudonyms in the report.
The lawsuit claims that the two former Air Force psychologists designed and implemented the harsh interrogation methods used on 39 CIA captives between 2002 and 2008.
Lawyers for the three plaintiffs want Jessen and Mitchell to pay compensatory damages of more than $75,000, punitive damages and attorneys' fees.
Quackenbush rejected the defense argument that the case is too politically sensitive to be heard in federal court and that government contractors are protected with immunity for their conduct.
Mitchell and Jessen's attorneys did not reply to requests for comment on the ruling.
The defense lawyers also argued that the case should be dismissed because the psychologists did not commit the acts described in the lawsuit.
"They did not make decisions about Plaintiffs' capture, treatment, confinement conditions, and interrogations; and they did not perform, supervise or control Plaintiffs' interrogations," defense attorney Christopher Tompkins wrote in court documents.
The plaintiffs include the family of Gul Rahman, an Afghan farmer who died of hypothermia, beatings and other abuse after two weeks in CIA custody in November 2002 in what the CIA later confirmed was a case of mistaken identity.
Another plaintiff, Mohammed Ahmed Ben Soud, a Libyan, was arrested in Pakistan in April 2003 and held in secret CIA prisons for more than a year. He now lives in the Libyan city of Misurata and "continues to suffer deep psychological harm," the suit says.
The third, Suleiman Abdullah Salim, a Tanzanian, was held at a secret CIA site in Afghanistan called the "salt pit" from March 2003. According to the lawsuit, he was sodomized, chained to a wall for days and held in solitary confinement for 14 months. He lives in Zanzibar, Tanzania.
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