SPOKANE, Wash. – A federal judge has given the CIA until March 8 to determine whether it wants to try to keep some records secret about the relationship between the agency and two psychologists hired to develop harsh interrogation methods in the war on terror.
U.S. District Judge Justin Quackenbush in Spokane set the deadline Monday for Justice Department attorneys to specify which documents or portions of documents relating to the CIA's work with Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell the agency wants to keep secret.
Under a complicated process that comes into play with documents the government may want to keep secret in the name of national security, the head of the CIA or the heads of any other government agencies involved in the case must decide which document or portions of a document should remain secret, Steven Watt, an attorney for the ACLU, said Tuesday.
"The judge will then determine if privilege is validly invoked," Watt said.
The documents have been requested by attorneys representing Jessen and Mitchell in a lawsuit filed against them by the ACLU on behalf of three men who contend they were tortured in secret CIA prisons using techniques designed by the psychologists.
The lawsuit was filed in 2015 on behalf of Suleiman Abdullah Salim, Mohamed Ahmed Ben Soud and the estate of Gul Rahman. They are seeking unspecified monetary damages from the psychologists, whose company was based in Spokane.
The case was delayed by a dispute between the U.S. government and the psychologists over government records the psychologists want to prevent in court. The government is not being sued by the ACLU.
Attorneys for the Justice Department had argued that more time was needed by the CIA to review the documents until President Donald Trump's newly appointed CIA director Mike Pompeo and Attorney General Jeff Sessions had time to review the case.
Rahman, an Afghan, was taken from his home in Pakistan in 2002 to a secret CIA prison in Afghanistan. He died of hypothermia several weeks later after being shackled to a floor in near freezing conditions.
According to the lawsuit, Salim and Ben Soud both suffered waterboarding, daily beatings and sleep deprivation while inside CIA "black sites." Salim, a Tanzanian, and Ben Soud, a Libyan, were later released after officials determined they posed no threat.
A U.S. Senate investigation in 2014 found that Mitchell and Jessen's techniques produced no useful intelligence in the war on terror.
The trial is set for June 26. The judge also urged the parties to seek a settlement before trial.
Mitchell and Jessen ran a Spokane, Washington-based company that received $81 million from the CIA to develop methods to extract information that included waterboarding, starvation and sleep deprivation. Barack Obama terminated the contract with the pair in 2009.
Attorney Brian Paszamant, who represents Jessen and Mitchell, has said he needs access to redacted government files to defend his clients.
Mitchell and Jessen designed the interrogation methods and took part in sessions with CIA prisoners, according to the Senate Intelligence Committee's investigation into the torture program.
Techniques included slamming the three men into walls, stuffing them inside coffin-like boxes, exposing them to extreme temperatures, starving them, inflicting various kinds of water torture, chaining them in stress positions designed for pain and keeping them awake for days, the ACLU said.
The psychologists have said in court documents that they used harsh tactics but denied allegations of torture and war crimes.
The Justice Department got involved in the case to represent the government's interests in keeping classified information secret but has not tried to block the lawsuit.
The ACLU has said all information needed for the case to proceed has been filed.