A federal judge has ordered that former CIA officials can be deposed in a lawsuit against the architects of the agency's torture program, in what human rights advocates say is a vital step for accountability.
The order (pdf), issued by U.S. District Court Senior Judge Justin Quackenbush earlier this week, rejected an attempt by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) that would have protected the officials from oral questioning. The deposition will be carried out as part of a discovery process for a case against the program's architects, psychologists James Mitchell and John "Bruce" Jessen, brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on behalf of three men who were subjected to beatings, exposure to extreme temperature, sleep and food deprivation, and other abuses while in CIA custody.
Two of the four officials are John Rizzo and Jose Rodriguez, who both held high-ranking positions in the agency at the time the torture program was being developed and implemented. In a blog post about the order, the ACLU wrote of Rizzo, who was the CIA's chief lawyer for much of George W. Bush's administration:
Rizzo went along with the now-discredited Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel [OCL] memos that purported to approve torture, privately acknowledging the OLC's "ability to interpret over, under and around Geneva, the torture convention, and other pesky little international obligations." Rizzo also helped draft Bush's still-secret order authorizing the CIA to establish secret detention facilities overseas and to interrogate detainees.
Rodriguez has also defended the CIA's torture of detainees and, while at the agency, authorized the use of certain tactics. He also ordered the destruction of scores of videotapes showing waterboarding and other torture.
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"This ruling is a critical step towards accountability, and it charts a way forward for torture victims to get their day in court," said ACLU staff attorney Dror Ladin. "For years, claims of secrecy shut the courthouse doors to survivors, but the systematic abuse of prisoners can't be swept under the rug forever. This order affirms that our judicial system can handle claims of CIA torture, including when those claims involve high-level government officials."
Two of the plaintiffs, Suleiman Abdullah Salim and Mohamed Ahmed Ben Soud, survived but continue to struggle physically and psychologically, the ACLU said. The third man, Gul Rahman, died of hypothermia in a secret CIA prison.
In a hearing last week, DOJ attorney Andrew Warden said, "It is, frankly, unprecedented...for the nation's top spy, the head of the National Clandestine Service to be deposed on operational information by a private party. I don't think that's ever happened in the history of this country."
The lawsuit against Mitchell and Jessen was filed in Washington state, where their law firm was based and where Jessen lives to this day. Although the ACLU says the depositions may help provide additional information about the program, the rights organization says the evidence they need to win the case has already been made public through reports like the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee's executive summary of its torture investigation.