Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) today welcomed a federal lawsuit against psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, the architects of the CIA’s post-9/11 torture program. PHR said the lawsuit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU), is a landmark step toward accountability, but urged the U.S. Department of Justice to criminally investigate and prosecute all those responsible for torture, including health professionals.
“Psychologists have an ethical responsibility to ‘do no harm,’ but Mitchell and Jessen’s actions rank among the worst medical crimes in U.S. history,” said Donna McKay, PHR’s executive director. “These two psychologists developed an experimental torture program based on brutality and junk science, and sold it to the CIA for $81 million. This lawsuit will hopefully provide greater transparency and some measure of relief to the victims, but the United States still has an obligation to investigate and prosecute these crimes.”
The lawsuit, filed in federal district court in Spokane, Washington, on behalf of three former CIA detainees, accuses Mitchell and Jessen of torture, human experimentation, and war crimes for their roles in the secret program. In violation of the fundamental ‘do no harm’ principle, the two psychologists designed, implemented, and oversaw a brutal torture regime, which included waterboarding, sleep deprivation, isolation and stress positions. They inflicted severe physical and mental pain on detainees to induce “learned helplessness,” despite knowing that any such attempts to destroy an individual’s sense of control over the most basic elements of his life would be tantamount to torture.
Mitchell and Jessen also kept detailed logs of interrogation sessions in order to analyze detainees’ reactions to torture, calibrate the methods used, and provide the Bush administration with false assurances that such practices were “safe” and “effective.” Without informed consent, collecting such information constitutes unlawful research and experimentation. PHR has previously documented the CIA’s human experimentation in its watershed 2010 report, Experiments in Torture, and 2014 analysis of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA torture, Doing Harm.
“Despite research protections designed to prevent horrific abuses, American health professionals engaged in unethical research and experimentation on prisoners in an attempt to justify the use of torture,” McKay said. “A comprehensive investigation is needed regarding the complicity of Mitchell and Jessen and all other health professionals in U.S. torture. The public’s trust in the healing professions can only be restored through accountability.”
Since 2005, PHR has documented the systematic use of detainee torture by U.S. personnel in a series of groundbreaking reports. PHR has repeatedly called for an end to the torture and ill-treatment of detainees, a federal investigation into the role of health professionals in the U.S. torture program, and full criminal and professional accountability for any health professionals involved.