Lawyers Discuss CIA Torture Lawsuit

Two members of the legal team that settled a lawsuit earlier this year against the psychologists who designed and implemented a Central Intelligence Agency torture program spoke Friday afternoon at the Law School about their work on the landmark case.

Paul L. Hoffman—a civil and human rights lawyer and lecturer at the Law School—and criminal defense lawyer Lawrence S. Lustberg played major roles on the American Civil Liberties Union’s litigation team in Salim v. Mitchell, filed on behalf of three former CIA detainees. The case accused two psychologists, James E. Mitchell and John B. Jessen, of designing “cruel, inhuman” interrogation techniques that were used against detainees Suleiman A. Salim, Mohamed A. Ben Soud, and Gul Rahman in secret CIA prisons.

The case, which was settled in August, is one of the most high-profile attempts to date to hold the U.S. government accountable for using techniques considered to be torture in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

“Numerous detainees have filed lawsuits challenging torture by the US government. Mr. Salim, Mr. Ben Soud were the first ones to ever have their case get this far, get to the eve of trial, get to a settlement,” Lustberg said. “Nobody had ever entered into a settlement with a CIA operative before in the history of the nation.”

More broadly, Lustberg said, the case illustrated the tension in public interest litigation between a client’s best interest and a litigation team’s cause.

“For the ACLU, it would have been a been a better thing for the case to go to trial; it would have been on the front page of The New York Times everyday,” Lustberg said. “For the clients, for whom this is a very difficult process, and who stood to reap the benefits of the settlement...it was their choice. That is a classic part of public interest litigation,” he added.

Lustberg also said that while the Obama administration was supportive of transparency regarding state interrogation techniques in this case, the Trump administration may be less so for future, similar cases.

“I expect that we’re in for a tough time period in terms of these sorts of techniques,” Lustberg said in an interview after the event. “On the other hand, what Salim v. Mitchell stands for is that if you do that, you do that by your peril.“

During a question and answer portion of the event, an audience member asked the lawyers whether their clients’ views of the country had changed since the case.

“Our clients were not anti-American before, and they’re not anti-American now,” Hoffman responded.

Elvina Pothelet, a visiting researcher at the Law School, said she was impressed with the obstacles the litigators surmounted in arguing the case to a settlement.

“It gives hope that this kind of case can find their way to the courts,” she said.

Lindsay A. Bailey, a second-year Law student, agreed.

“It’s inspiring to hear about the cases that are a win, because we take a lot of losses in the human rights litigation field,” she said.

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