A federal judge on Friday cleared the way for trial in a case against two psychologists contracted by the CIA to develop what became known as the agency’s “enhanced interrogation program” deployed abroad in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
In a first-of-its-kind ruling last April, U.S. Senior District Judge Justin Quackenbush had already greenlighted the civil lawsuit against the contractors, who are credited with developing the George W. Bush-era torture program detailed in a scathing Senate intelligence report made public in 2014.
But the two men, James Elmer Mitchell and John “Bruce” Jessen, had once again moved to dismiss the case, arguing that the laws of war don’t allow courts to entertain private lawsuits against “agents” of the United States, let alone by those the government has designated as “enemy combatants.”
Quackenbush dismissed those arguments in a Friday ruling, reasoning that Mitchell and Jessen presented no evidence of an “agency” relationship with the CIA, which is not a party in the case. He also noted that none of the three former detainees who sued them was officially deemed an enemy combatant.
The civil lawsuit ― filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of three foreign nationals who were detained, beaten and subjected to inhumane treatment by the CIA ― may now proceed to trial, which the judge scheduled for June.
“There have been so many cases brought by torture victims … and not one of them has been able to go forward, for shameful reasons,” the ACLU’s Hina Shamsi told reporters in April, the first time the case was allowed to proceed. “This is a very big deal for our clients.”
Suleiman Abdullah Salim, Mohamed Ahmed Ben Soud and Gul Rahman were identified as victims in the executive summary of the Senate torture report, and their case against the CIA contractors relies largely on public information from the report. (Rahman died in captivity in 2002.)
In one filing in the case, Mitchell and Jessen all but admitted their role in developing the program, which the CIA hired them to develop as the spy agency secretly swept up detainees with suspected ties to the Taliban and al Qaeda in the frenzy after 9/11. They netted $81 million from the contract.
The Obama administration abandoned the use of torture in 2009, but it also successfully blocked efforts to hold accountable the CIA and government officials who rationalized its use and implemented it during the Bush years.
In his first week in office, President Donald Trump said that torture “absolutely” works and considered bringing it back, but he said Friday that he would allow his defense secretary, James Mattis, to “override” him on the subject.