Illustration by Barry Blankenship

Illustration by Barry Blankenship

Feds Say Spokane Torture Contractors Are on Their Own

Government lawyers are citing national security while denying the defendants’ requests for testimony from CIA officials they say directed the interrogation program they devised.

An official recently appointed by the Trump administration to the No. 2 spot in the Central Intelligence Agency is being sought to testify on behalf of two psychologists who created “extreme interrogation” techniques used on suspected terrorists at black prison sites overseas.

But government lawyers argued in Spokane on Friday that allowing CIA Deputy Director Gina Haspel to give a deposition would be a threat to national security.

U.S. District Court Judge Justin Quackenbush indicated that testimony by Haspel, whose February appointment drew fire from human rights critics, may not be needed in the only post-911 torture case to be allowed to go to trial.

The historic civil action, Salim v Mitchell, was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of two former suspected terrorists—who say they were wrongly accused and tortured—and the family of another accused suspect who died from mistreatment shortly after his abduction.

Suleiman Abdullah Salim, a Tanzanian fisherman abducted by the CIA in Somalia in 2003, was allegedly tortured and released five years later and told he posed no threat to the United States. Mohammed Ahmed Ben Soud, a Libyan abducted in 2003 and allegedly tortured in Afghanistan, was later rendered to Libya and held until 2011, after the overthrow of the Kadafi regime.

Gul Rahman, also abducted, died after two weeks in CIA custody, chained up and suffering from hypothermia. Rahman was held at a facility in Afghanistan known as the “Salt Pit.”

While the government has not invoked national security in an attempt to dismiss the suit as it has in similar cases, the Department of Justice has now raised the issue to prevent Haspel and a second, former CIA official from testifying, and to block the full or partial release of secret documents.

The testimony and documents are being sought by the defendants, psychologists James Mitchell and John “Bruce” Jessen of Spokane, who devised the interrogation program under contract with the CIA. Their company earned $81 million through a series of government contracts from 2003 until President Obama ended the program in 2009.

The tactics they developed included waterboarding, beatings and stressful, mind-bending experiments with glaring lights and incessant music in attempts to force detainees—including 911 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed—to talk. He was waterboarded 183 times.

A 2014 Senate investigation concluded that tactic and other techniques failed to elicit any useful intelligence in the U.S. war on terror.

Mitchell and Jessen contend they can’t be sued because they acted under the color of law as a secret but integral part of the CIA. According to court documents and Friday arguments before Judge Quackenbush, Haspel and former CIA official James Cotsana—whom Mitchell and Jessen say were their direct supervisors—can provide support for that argument.

The psychologists’ attorneys say in a court brief that “the Government has refused to permit Cotsana to testify due solely to its unwillingness to permit him to admit or deny his role in the Program. The Government has refused Defendants’ request to depose Haspel for the same reason, even though Haspel’s involvement with the CIA and the Program has now been formally acknowledged due, in part, to her recent promotion to Deputy Director of the CIA.”

Justice Department lawyer Andrew Warden told Quackenbush the U.S. could not confirm or deny whether Haspel or Cotsana helped run the interrogation program. Haspel, however, was outed in a recent New York Times report and is mentioned in a CIA-approved book by former official Jose Rodriguez as a “head of one of [the CIA’s] earliest ‘black sites,’” and as his “chief of staff when [he] led the clandestine service.”

Haspel, who attorneys said ran a secret prison in Thailand, would confirm the psychologists’ direct ties to the CIA if she was allowed to give a deposition, the duo’s lawyers said in court papers and during Friday’s arguments.

The case, at this point, has resulted in some strange bed-fellowing. The government is thwarting the former CIA contractors’ defense attempts while the ACLU is siding with the U.S. in opposing the CIA depositions and release of some documents.

The U.S. says it is compelled to do so by laws that protect government secrets. Dror Ladin, an ACLU lawyer, said his clients are more concerned with the creation of the torture program rather than the officials who oversaw it.

“This case has always been, from day number one, about the design of the program,” he said, “…and how those techniques were used on our clients.”

Trial is currently set to start in September.

news@seattleweekly.com


Talk to us

Please share your story tips by emailing editor@seattleweekly.com.

More in News & Comment

Carpenters union members peacefully strike on Sept. 16 in downtown Bellevue (photo by Cameron Sheppard)
Carpenters union strike on pause after “illegal picketing activity”

Union spokesperson claims wildcat protestors harrassed and threatened violence.

Puget Sound renters will need housing assistance
Puget Sound renters will need housing assistance

Nonprofits, activists are expecting greater need as workers are laid off.

t
Peter Rogoff to step down as Sound Transit CEO in 2022

Became CEO in 2016; search for replacement to begin

File photo/Sound Publishing
Ban on single-use plastic bags in WA begins Oct. 1

Shoppers will have the choice to pay for a reusable plastic or recycled paper bag.

file photo
Housing and finance insiders call for subsidized housing families can own, instead of rent

Advocates say increasing homeownership will strengthen the community, build intergenerational wealth

Map of proposed landfill expansion sites (screenshot from King County website)
Waste management expert knocks county’s plan to expand landfill

The waste management advocate said the decision to expand seems pre-determined despite assessment.

file photo
State employees including first responders sue state over vaccine mandate

The lawsuit filed on behalf of more than 90 plaintiffs claims Inslee’s order is unconstitutional.

Pixabay photo
Union carpenters to go on strike, expected to impact Eastside Microsoft projects

Members authorized strike after rejecting AGC offer for the fourth time.

file photo
The state’s hospitals face “unprecedented collapse” amid COVID uptick warn healthcare unions

Union spokeperson says understaffing was a problem even before the pandemic.

Gov. Jay Inslee talks about schools reopening during a past news conference. (Screenshot courtesy of TVW)
Masks required at big outdoor events; vaccine mandates expanded

Governor’s mask order takes effect Sept. 13.

Pixabay image
King County is looking for community members to help oversee law enforcement accountability

Community Advisory Committee for Law Enforcement Oversight is in need of applicants.