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ACLU Sues Two Psychologists For Developing CIA Interrogation Program

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

A federal lawsuit filed this week by the American Civil Liberties Union accuses two clinical psychologists of torture. It's the first legal action tied directly to last year's Senate report on the CIA's harsh interrogation of suspected terrorists. As NPR's David Welna reports, the lawsuit does not target the CIA officials in charge of the program, only the psychologists.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: The two psychologists named in the ACLU's lawsuit are former CIA contractors James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen.

STEVEN WATT: They designed and ran the CIA's infamous torture program.

WELNA: That's Steven Watt. He's one of the ACLU attorneys who brought the lawsuit on behalf of three men who the Senate report says were brutally interrogated by the CIA. One of them died in captivity. Another now lives in Libya, and the third lives in Zanzibar. Watt notes that report shows the CIA paid a firm that psychologists Mitchell and Jessen set up $81 million for their services.

WATT: They invented methods to torture individuals with the aim of breaking them down. And their theory that underlay their program that they designed for the CIA and implemented for them was that if you break down human beings by torturing them and abusing them that they will become compliant to an interrogator's demands for information.

WELNA: Neither of the defendants who have not yet been served a summons was immediately available for comment. But last December, just days after the Senate report came out, James Mitchell was asked on Fox News whether what he and his colleague devised for the CIA was torture.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAMES MITCHELL: If it was torture, I would be in jail. This thing was investigated over and over and over. I was told by the highest law enforcement agency in the land that we were going to walk right up to the edge of the law and that all the things that we had included in that list were legal.

WELNA: The CIA declined to comment for this report. Jose Rodriguez is the former CIA official who was in charge of the interrogation program. He told Fox News in December the Senate report was a dark day for the CIA.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOSE RODRIGUEZ: I believe that, you know - we've been thrown under the bus and the politicians are playing political football with the CIA.

WELNA: A Justice Department internal investigation concluded three years ago there was insufficient evidence to successfully prosecute CIA officials involved in the interrogation program, so none has been charged. The ACLU's Watt acknowledges his group's lawsuit does not attempt to hold any officials accountable.

WATT: The CIA is ultimately responsible for the program, but that doesn't absolve the other people, such as Mitchell and Jessen, who are critical in enabling the CIA's torture.

LAURA PITTER: I think it is the beginning of momentum towards accountability for what happened.

WELNA: That's Laura Pitter of Human Rights Watch. She says that as a signatory to the convention against torture, the U.S. remains obliged to prosecute torture and compensate victims.

PITTER: This lawsuit is a means to try to obtain some sort of compensation and rehabilitation for these individuals whose lives have been completely destroyed. But it doesn't mean that the U.S. does not still have an obligation to prosecute and should prosecute those responsible.

WELNA: Do you think that there's any chance that's going to happen?

PITTER: I do. I think the evidence is just overwhelming. It continues to grow every day and that it's impossible to ignore.

WELNA: Pitter says human rights advocates are encouraged that the defense policy bill Congress sent President Obama last week, contains a provision that specifically restricts CIA interrogation methods to those outlined in the Army Field Manual. But they continue to press the Justice Department to name a special prosecutor to investigate the CIA interrogation program given the new information revealed by the Senate report. So far they've gotten no response. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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