SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — The acknowledgement by two former Air Force psychologists that they used waterboarding and other harsh tactics against detainees in the war on terror is a striking development, according to a human rights lawyer.
"It's remarkable to see an end to the deniability of the existence of records of torture," said Sarah Dougherty, a senior fellow with Physicians for Human Rights in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.
"This is a significant step forward for accountability," Dougherty said.
In federal court documents filed this week, the two psychologists who helped design the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques said they used harsh tactics, but they denied allegations of torture and war crimes leveled by the American Civil Liberties Union.
The ACLU has sued James E. Mitchell and John "Bruce" Jessen of Washington state on behalf of three former CIA prisoners, including one who died, creating a closely watched case that will likely include classified information.
In response, the pair's attorneys filed documents this week in which Mitchell and Jessen acknowledge using waterboarding, loud music, confinement, slapping and other harsh methods but deny that they were torture.
"Defendants deny that they committed torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, non-consensual human experimentation and/or war crimes," their lawyers wrote, asking a federal judge in Spokane to throw out the lawsuit and award them court costs.
The records don't say why Mitchell and Jessen don't consider the techniques to be torture. They declined to respond to many of the ACLU's allegations, saying much of the information is classified.
"This is historic," ACLU attorney Dror Ladin said Wednesday. The ACLU has also sued the CIA and its former Director George Tenet over a program that has since been discontinued and widely discredited. "Until now, no one responsible for the CIA torture program has ever been forced to admit their actions in court."
In the new documents, the psychologists acknowledged:
— They placed a detainee in coffin-like boxes and used facial slaps, abdominal slaps and facial grabs when asking him about terrorist operations planned against the United States.
— Mitchell recommended a detainee who was withholding information not be provided with any amenities, his sleep be disrupted and that loud noise be fed into his cell.
— Waterboarding a detainee.
"They also admit that on at least one occasion (detainee) walked to the water table and sat down when one of the interrogators raised an eyebrow," the documents say.
Dougherty said she hoped the news would prompt other victims of torture to file lawsuits.
Mitchell and Jessen founded a Spokane-based company in 2005 that won a contract with the CIA to create the enhanced interrogation program, with the government paying it $81 million over several years, according to federal reports.
The lawsuit says the psychologists, despite having no expertise with al-Qaida, devised a program that drew from 1960s experiments involving dogs and a theory called "learned helplessness." The lawsuit accused the two of endorsing and teaching torture tactics under the guise of science.
The ACLU says that Gul Rahman was interrogated at a CIA-run prison in Afghanistan known as "the Salt Pit" and subjected to isolation, darkness and extreme cold water. He was later found dead of hypothermia.
The other two prisoners in the lawsuit, Suleiman Abdullah Salim and Mohamed Ahmed Ben Soud, were held in CIA prisons. But they were never charged with crimes and are now free.
The Justice Department has signaled that it would not try to block the lawsuit, which is expected to involve secret information. Experts called the government's stance unprecedented but also a recognition that a once-secret program is now largely out in the open.
The veil of secrecy surrounding CIA interrogations dropped away when the summary of a scathing Senate report on the program was released two years ago. That report said the interrogation techniques — including sleep deprivation, waterboarding and beatings — had inflicted pain on al-Qaida prisoners far beyond the legal limits and did not yield lifesaving intelligence.