By Eric M. Johnson
SEATTLE (Reuters) - A U.S. judge on Friday refused to dismiss a lawsuit against the former military psychologists who developed the CIA's interrogation program during George W. Bush's presidency, handing a major victory to a group of men who said they were tortured in secret prisons abroad.
U.S. District Court Judge Justin Quackenbush's decision to allow the case to proceed was a step forward in the campaign to hold individuals accountable for a program that the American Civil Liberties Union said resulted in the torture of at least 119 men from 2002 until it was ended in 2008.
The ACLU filed the lawsuit last October on behalf of Suleiman Abdullah Salim, a Tanzanian abducted by the CIA and Kenyan security forces in Somalia in 2003, Mohamed Ahmed Ben Soud, a Libyan captured in a U.S.-Pakistani raid the same year, and Gul Rahman, an Afghan national who died in 2002 in CIA custody from hypothermia caused by dehydration and exposure.
The civil liberties group argued that former U.S. Air Force psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen encouraged the CIA "to adopt torture as official policy" and made millions of dollars in the process.
It added that the program used such methods as starvation, beating, sleep deprivation, forced nudity and water dousing to break the will of prisoners.
The lawsuit seeks damages of at least $75,000 for the men, who were all held in CIA "black sites" in Afghanistan.
Siding with the former prisoners following a two-hour hearing in Spokane, Washington, Quackenbush gave the parties 30 days to draw up a plan for the discovery process in collaboration with the Justice Department, which the ACLU said was "a first in a lawsuit concerning CIA torture."
Although it was not named in the lawsuit, the Justice Department had asked the court to consider "the interests of the United States" in relation to classified information that may emerge during the evidence-gathering phase.
The U.S. government has blocked similar cases by arguing that national security could be jeopardized if the proceedings were allowed to continue, the ACLU said.
Attorneys for Mitchell and Jessen had pushed for a dismissal, arguing in court filings that the prisoners were asking the court to "second-guess real-time decisions by the Executive Branch in the theater of war almost 15 years ago."
They said the men are immune from its claims because they were contractors performing work for the government.
ACLU attorney Dror Ladin said the fact that other decision-makers were involved "does nothing to exonerate the defendants. They were the ones who decided to profit from torture."
Ladin said the lawsuit is the only one filed after a 2014 U.S. Senate report stated the CIA paid $80 million to a company run by two former U.S. Air Force psychologists without experience in interrogation or counter-terrorism.
U.S. intelligence sources later identified the psychologists as Mitchell and Jessen. The company was Mitchell Jessen & Associates of Spokane.
(Reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Seattle; Editing by Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles, Dan Grebler and Paul Simao)