Will architects of CIA torture regime be held to account?
by Paul McGeough
He doesn’t forget. Plucked from a very ordinary existence in Somalia, the Tanzanian fisherman Suleiman Abdullah Salim was subjected to extraordinary treatment in Afghanistan.
Snatched by American CIA and Kenyan agents in March 2003, he was sodomised and photographed before being whisked to Afghanistan, where he was locked in a putrid, pitch-black cell – with the music of Irish boy band Westlife blaring constantly and at a head-cracking volume.
On top of that, an incessant regime of calculated torture, the objective of which was to break him psychologically – beaten and slammed against walls; showered in iced water; hanged from a metal rod, so high that his toes just touched the floor; chained in painful stress positions for days on end; starved; deprived of sleep.
Between those times, there was relentless, terrifying interrogation – why was he in Somalia? and again and again, a barrage of names that he was supposed to know – but save for one, were unknown to him.
After four, maybe five weeks, this grotesque process arrived at a fantastical juncture – claiming success, the torturers declared Salim psychologically broken, incapable of resisting them; admitting defeat, they concede he knows nothing.
After all that, it seemed that Salim was indeed just a fisherman from the island of Zanzibar, off the coast of Tanzania.
There’d be another five long years of shackles and hoods, of being shunted from one “black-site” prison to another, one called The Salt Pit; another Cobalt; before he was returned to a family that had presumed him dead.
Salim was charged with no felony, no misdemeanour – and on his release he was presented with a piece of paper which stated that he posted “no threat to the United States Armed Forces or its interests in Afghanistan”.
He can’t forget. Assailed by memories, Salim explains in a video recording: “Every time I think of prison, flashbacks come. I can’t sleep. I can’t eat. I can’t smell. I’m in so much pain. I don’t understand anything. I have headaches, too much headaches. I want to vomit. I’m innocent. Why they beat like that?”
Now, remarkable as it might seem, Salim is getting his day in court. In Spokane, Washington, his lawyers have successfully threaded the eye of a very fine legal needle – and last week they won standing in the court of US District judge Justin Quackenbush.
Salim is joined in his legal action by two others – Mohammed Ahmed Ben Soud, a Libyan who is also a survivor of the CIA torture regime; and the family of Gul Rahman, a Afghan captured in Pakistan, who unsportingly was the only prisoner known to have died in Washington’s post-9/11 torture free-for-all. Like Salim, neither Soud nor Rahman were charges with committing any offence.
It’s still early days. But winning Quackenbush’s permission to proceed with the claim for compensatory and punitive damages is a crucial step in holding individuals responsible for a CIA torture regime that ran from 2002 through to 2008.
Explaining how a raft of previous efforts had been blocked, Steven Watt, a senior staff lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, said that some suits had been blocked on the grounds that state secrets were involved; others because the government and military officials named in the actions had immunity from prosecution.
“That’s why this case is unique, historic,” he said when I called his New York office. “It’s the first such case to move beyond an application for its dismissal.”
Another court ruling, on the same day but on the opposite side of the country, in Washington DC, might have been the kiss of death for Watt’s bold venture. That was a Federal Appeals Court rejection of a freedom of information application, also by the ACLU, for the release of a 6700-page document – the Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program or, as it is more commonly known, The Senate Torture Report.
But in 2014, a 500-page executive summary of that report was released – and that’s enough for Watt’s purposes because, as he says: “The summary document states that Mitchell and Jessen were the key architects of the program, that they oversaw it and that they made huge profits. They were in a conspiracy with the CIA and the [Bush administration’s] Office of Legal Counsel.”
He’s talking about the defendants in his action on behalf of Salim, Soud and Rahman’s family – they are former US Air Force psychologists turned millionaire torture contractors, James Mitchell and John “Bruce” Jessen.
Their defence got off to a bad start just days before Quackenbush’s ruling in Spokane, when their lawyer’s claim that “they did not create or establish the CIA enhanced interrogation program”, collided with a publisher’s blurb on Mitchell’s upcoming book, Enhanced Interrogation: Inside the Minds and Motives of the Islamic Terrorists Trying to Destroy America. That blurb bills Mitchell as the “creator of the CIA’s controversial enhanced interrogation program” and as “one of the primary terrorist interrogators”.
The Senate committee’s executive summary was damning – the CIA’s brutal treatment of terror suspects from 2002 to 2008 had led to false confessions and made-up information; it had elicited no useful intelligence on imminent terrorist attacks; and was so badly managed that the agency was unable to keep track of its captives.
Using code names for Mitchell and Jessen, it reveals that they “developed the list of enhances interrogation techniques … [and] personally conducted interrogation of some of the CIA’s most significant detainees using these techniques”.
The torture duo peddled the notorious waterboarding technique as “absolutely convincing” and they pocketed more than $US80 million of taxpayers funds for their services. But questions linger – did they really know what they were up to? More importantly – did their CIA masters know, or, if so, did they care?
As stated in the summary: “Neither psychologist had experience as an interrogator, nor did either have specialised knowledge of al-Qaeda, a background in terrorism, or of any relevant regional, cultural or linguistic expertise.”
But they had a theory.
A post-Nazi, global ban on human experimentation meant that there was no scientific proof for the idea that underpinned the torture program – that once broken psychologically, a detainee would be compliant and co-operate with interrogators. But says Watts in a 37-page summary of his case: “… that theory would drive an experiment in some of the worst systematic brutality ever inflicted on detainees in modern American history.”
A daring step in all this, was the belief by Mitchell and Jessen that they could “reverse engineer” the techniques they had used to train American fighter pilots to resist torture in the event that they were shot down over enemy territory – known as the SERE program.
“[They] intensified and manipulated the SERE techniques … [but] whereas SERE training was intended to help strengthen the resolve of American recruits, Mitchell and Jessen’s techniques were designed to achieve the exact opposite results – to break detainees and turn their minds into putty in interrogators’ hands,” Watts writes
Mitchell and Jessen wanted to apply the concept of “learned helplessness” which, based on 1960s experiments with dogs, uses negative events to have a subject conclude that there is nothing they can do to avoid suffering.
Watts explains: “[The dogs] that couldn’t stop the pain didn’t even try to avoid it, even when given the opportunity. They believed they had no ability to control their fate – they had learned helplessness.”
The program was unethical, illegal and at odds with the lessons of history. But in February 2002 then president George W. Bush struck down the last protection the detainees had – he decreed that they were no longer protected by the Geneva Conventions.
A bizarre aspect of the deal under which they worked was that Mitchell and Jessen got to evaluate their own work; in this, they misrepresented the results – and complaints within the CIA that this amounted to a conflict of interest were brushed aside.
Watt says that the second surviving plaintiff, the Libyan Mohammed Ahmed Ben Soud, identified Mitchell as one of those present for several of his torture sessions, including waterboarding.
Describing Soud’s arrival at the CIA’s Cobalt black-site in Afghanistan, Watt sets out the escalating torture: “For much of the next year, CIA personnel kept [him] naked and chained to the wall, in one of three painful stress positions designed to keep him awake. He was held in complete isolation in a dungeon-like cell, starved, with no bed, blanket or light. A bucket served as his toilet. Ear-splitting music pounded constantly. The stench was unbearable. He was kept naked for weeks. He wasn’t permitted to wash for five months.
“… guards would take him from his cell and force him to march around the prison naked for 15 minutes every half hour, through the night and into the morning. They bombarded him with music. Once, his captors deprived him of sleep for some 36hrs, hanging him naked by his arms from a metal rod where he balanced on the tips of his toes.
“His legs became engorged with fluid and he started to hallucinate.”
As an opponent of the regime of the late Muammar Gaddafi, Soud had fled Libya in 1991 and had been snatched by the CIA in Pakistan. After 9/11, the regime is thought to have fingered him as a terror suspect to the US, as it did with others it had blacklisted. And in 2004, when the CIA was done with him, it delivered Soud back to Libya, where he was sentenced to life in jail, where he stewed till the regime was overthrown in 2011.
Agreeing to a rare interview with The Guardian in 2014, the psychologist Mitchell spoke with defiance, implying a belief he’d beaten the rap.
Invoking the name of Senator Dianne Feinstein who chaired the Senate Intelligence Committee at the time of its torture investigation, Mitchell snorted: “I don’t care what Feinstein thinks of me – I’m retired. I do a lot of adventurous stuff now. I served my country and now I’m done. I did what I did for whoever I did it for, and now I’m done with that stuff.”