- Associated Press - Friday, December 17, 2010

WASHINGTON (AP) — The CIA agreed to cover at least $5 million in legal fees for two contractors who were the architects of the agency’s interrogation program and personally conducted dozens of waterboarding sessions on terror detainees, former U.S. officials said.

The secret agreement means taxpayers are paying to defend the men in a federal investigation over an interrogation tactic the U.S. now says is torture. The deal is even more generous than the protections the agency typically provides its own officers, giving the two men access to more money to finance their defense.

It has long been known that psychologists Jim Mitchell and Bruce Jessen created the CIA’s interrogation program. But former U.S. intelligence officials said Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Jessen also repeatedly subjected terror suspects inside CIA-run secret prisons to waterboarding, a simulated drowning tactic.

The revelation of the contractors’ involvement is the first known confirmation of any individuals who conducted waterboarding at the so-called black sites, underscoring just how much the agency relied on outside help in its most sensitive interrogations.

Normally, CIA officers buy insurance to cover possible legal bills. It costs about $300 a year for $1 million in coverage. Today, the CIA pays the premiums for most officers, but at the height of the war on terrorism, officers had to pay half.

The Mitchell and Jessen arrangement, known as an “indemnity promise,” was structured differently. Unlike CIA officers, whose identities are classified, Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Jessen were public citizens who received some of the earliest scrutiny by reporters and lawmakers. The two wanted more protection.

The agency agreed to pay the legal bills for the psychologists’ firm, Mitchell, Jessen & Associates, directly from CIA accounts, according to several interviews with the former officials, who insisted on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.

The company has been embroiled in at least two high-profile Justice Department investigations, tapping the CIA to pay its legal bills. Neither Jamie Gorelick, who originally represented the company, nor Henry Schuelke, the current lawyer, returned messages seeking comment. Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Jessen also didn’t return calls for comment.

The CIA would not comment on any indemnity agreement.

“It’s been nearly eight years since waterboarding — an interrogation method used on three detainees — was last used as part of a terrorist detention program that no longer exists,” CIA spokesman George Little said.

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Jessen sold the government on an interrogation program for high-value al Qaeda members. The two psychologists had spent years training military officials to resist interrogations and, in doing so, had subjected U.S. troops to techniques such as forced nudity, painful stress positions, sleep deprivation and waterboarding.

But those interrogations had always been training sessions at the military’s school known as SERE — Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape. They had never conducted any actual interrogations.

That changed in 2002 with the capture of suspected al Qaeda facilitator Abu Zubaydah. The agency believed tougher-than-usual tactics were necessary to squeeze information from him, so Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Jessen flew to a secret CIA prison in Thailand to oversee Zubaydah’s interrogation.

The pair waterboarded Zubaydah 83 times, according to previously released records and former intelligence officials. Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Jessen did the bulk of the work, claiming they were the only ones who knew how to apply the techniques properly, the former officials said.

The waterboarding technique involved “binding the detainee to a bench with his feet elevated above his head,” formerly top-secret documents explain. “The detainee’s head is immobilized and an interrogator places a cloth over the detainee’s mouth and nose while pouring water onto the cloth in a controlled manner.”

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