Details emerge on role of private contractors in CIA secret prison system and CIA’s indemnity promise

The CIA agreed to cover at least $5 million in legal fees for psychologists Jim Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, who were the architects of the agency’s interrogation program and personally conducted dozens of waterboarding sessions on at least three terror detainees, former U.S. officials said. 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.
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 terror suspects inside CIA-run secret prisons to waterboarding, a simulated drowning tactic. Mitchell and Jessen flew for instance 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. Mitchell and 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 psychologists also waterboarded USS Cole bombing plotter Abd
al-Nashiri (ahbd al-nuh-SHEE’-ree) twice in Thailand, according to
former intelligence officials.

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, believing they had reached the point of “diminishing
returns.” But CIA superiors told them to press forward, two former
officials said.

In another case, Mitchell and Jessen successfully argued against
waterboarding admitted terrorist Ramzi Binalshibh in Poland, the
official said.

Normally, CIA officers buy insurance to cover possible legal bills. It costs about $300 a year for $1 million in coverage.
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. On top of the waterboarding case, Mitchell and Jessen also needed lawyers to help navigate the Justice Department’s investigation into the destruction of CIA interrogation videos.

Mitchell and Jessen were recorded interrogating Zubaydah and al-Nashiri and were eager to see those tapes destroyed, fearing their release would jeopardize their safety, former officials and others close to the matter said.

They often contacted senior CIA officials, urging them to destroy the tapes and asking what was taking so long, said a person familiar with the Durham investigation who insisted on anonymity because the case’s details remain sensitive. Finally the CIA’s top clandestine officer, Jose Rodriguez, made the decision to destroy the tapes in November 2005.

Durham investigated whether that was a crime. He subpoenaed Mitchell, Jessen & Associates last year, looking for calendars, e-mails and phone records showing contact between the contractors and Rodriguez or his chief of staff, according to a federal subpoena. They were ordered to appear before a grand jury in northern Virginia in August 2009.

Last month, Durham closed the tapes destruction investigation without filing charges.

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