WASHINGTON - When the CIA decided to waterboard terrorism suspects detained in overseas prisons, the agency turned to a pair of contractors. The men designed the CIA's interrogation program and also personally took part in the waterboarding sessions.
But to do the job, the CIA had to promise to cover at least $5 million in legal fees for them in case there was trouble down the road, former U.S. officials said.
As it turns out, the contractors needed that secret agreement as taxpayers pay to defend the men in a federal investigation over an interrogation tactic the United States 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 defenses.
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 Mitchell and Jessen also repeatedly subjected terrorism suspects inside CIA-run secret prisons to waterboarding, a tactic that simulates drowning.
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, Mitchell and 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 spoke only 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. Mitchell and Jessen also did not return calls.
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 9/11, Mitchell and 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 Mitchell and 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. Mitchell and Jessen did the bulk of the work.
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."
The documents add that "airflow is restricted for 20 to 40 seconds and the technique produces the sensation of drowning and suffocation." The session was not supposed to last more than 20 minutes.
The role of Mitchell and Jessen in the interrogation of confessed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is a bit murkier. At least one other interrogator was involved in those sessions, with the company providing support, a former official said. Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times in Poland in 2003, according to documents and former intelligence officials.
In at least two instances, Mitchell and Jessen pushed back. During Zubaydah's interrogation, the psychologists argued he had endured enough waterboarding, but CIA superiors told them to press forward. In another case, the two successfully argued against waterboarding admitted terrorist Ramzi Binalshibh in Poland, officials said.