By
updated 12/17/2010 11:01:20 AM ET 2010-12-17T16:01:20

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 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 helped create 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.

  1. Only on NBCNews.com
    1. OWN via Getty Images
      From belief to betrayal: How America fell for Armstrong
    2. pool via Reuters file
      US to Syria neighbors: Be ready to act on WMDs
    3. China: One-child policy is here to stay
    4. NRA: Practice Range
      New 'Practice Range' shooter game says it’s from NRA
    5. 'Gifted' priest indicted in crystal meth case
    6. AFP - Getty Images
      China's state media admits to air pollution crisis
    7. AFP - Getty Images
      French to send 1,000 more troops to Mali

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 President George W. Bush's war on terror, 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 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 in which it tapped 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 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.

Forced nudity
After the terrorism attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Mitchell and Jessen sold the government on an interrogation program for high-value al-Qaida 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.

Those interrogations always had been training sessions at the military's school known as SERE: Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape. They never had conducted actual interrogations.

That changed in 2002 with the capture of suspected al-Qaida 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.

Slideshow: Life goes on in Guantanamo (on this page)

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 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 psychologists also waterboarded USS Cole bombing plotter Abd al-Nashiri 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.

Video: Bush: Waterboarding, surveillance ‘necessary’ (on this page)

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.

The CIA inspector general concluded in a top secret report in 2004 that the waterboarding technique used by the CIA deviated from the rules outlined by the Justice Department and the common practice at SERE school. CIA interrogations involved far more water poured constantly over the prisoner, investigators said.

"One of the psychologists/interrogators acknowledged that the agency's use of the technique differed from that used in SERE training and explained that the agency's technique is different because it is 'for real' and is more poignant and convincing," the inspector general's report said.

It was not clear whether Mitchell or Jessen made that remark.

'Diminishing returns'
Justice Department prosecutor John Durham is investigating whether any CIA officers or contractors, including Mitchell and Jessen, should face criminal charges.

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.

  1. Related content
    1. U.S. tracking terror threats during holidays
    2. Supposedly slain al-Qaida terrorist reappears in photo
    3. Code-cracking agency expects it is compromised
    4. NYT: U.S. rethinks strategy for unthinkable attack

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.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Guantanamo Bay detention center

loading photos...
  1. A U.S. military guard arrives for work at Camp Delta in the Guantanamo Bay detention center on March 30, 2010. Two days after his inauguration in January 2009, President Barack Obama signed an executive order to close the facility in one year and review each detainee’s case individually, but he has missed the deadline by months and has struggled to transfer, try or release the remaining detainees. (These pictures have been reviewed by the U.S. military.) (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Detainees prepare to eat lunch at Camp 6 in the Guantanamo Bay detention center on March 30, 2010. The U.S. military currently holds 183 detainees at Guantanamo, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-described mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The detention center has held nearly 780 detainees in an assortment of camps that were built to accommodate different levels of security. In Camp 6, detainees spend at least 22 hours a day in single-occupancy cells. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. In this picture, a detainee stands in Guantanamo’s Camp 6, his face obscured by a wire fence. There are strict rules on the publication of photographs of detainees – any distinguishing features or clear pictures of detainees’ faces are not allowed past Guantanamo’s gates. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A detainee reads a magazine in the library at Camp 6. One of the obstacles President Obama faces in shutting down the detention facility is that Congress has blocked funding for a plan that would transfer some detainees to a prison in the United States. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. The Department of Justice is currently reviewing each detainee’s case individually and categorizing them into three groups: those who face trial, those who will be transferred to detention facilities in other countries, and those who are deemed a danger but cannot released or tried because of sensitive evidence – and must continue to be held. There are 48 detainees in this category. Here, detainees prepare to eat lunch at Camp 6. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. In this photo, a detainee attends a class in "life skills" inside Camp 6. In November 2009, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other Sept. 11 suspects would be prosecuted in a federal court in New York City, setting off a heated debate that put the White House on the defense and has forced it to reconsider the plan. The Obama administration has also designated six detainees for trial by military tribunal, including Canadian Omar Khadr, whose trial will be the first at Guantanamo during the Obama presidency. (Brennan Linsley / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A U.S. Navy guard prepares to escort a detainee after a "life skills" class in Camp 6. Meantime, the war crimes tribunal convened in Guantanamo on April 28, 2010, to decide what evidence can be used against Omar Khadr, a Canadian citizen who was just 15 when he was detained in Afghanistan in 2002. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Congressional Republicans and some Democrats oppose the plan to prosecute detainees in federal courts because that would give suspects full U.S. legal rights and could lead to the release of dangerous terrorists. Supporters, however, say military courts unfairly limit defendants’ rights and contend that federal courts are just as capable of bringing suspects to justice. In this photo, U.S. Army guards are briefed at the Guantanamo Bay detention center on March 30, 2010. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A U.S. Army soldier patrols past a guard tower at Camp Delta. A final difficulty in closing the detention facility is skepticism about how well some countries would monitor and rehabilitate detainees transferred there – and whether they would be at risk of being recruited into terror networks. Yemen, in particular, is under scrutiny after the failed Christmas Day airplane bombing by Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who is believed to have been trained by al-Qaida in Yemen. The Obama administration has since suspended all transfers to Yemen. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  4. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

Video: Bush: Waterboarding, surveillance ‘necessary’

  1. Transcript of: Bush: Waterboarding, surveillance ‘necessary’

    Here's something else from the book: " September 11th redefined sacrifice, it redefined duty and it would redefine my job. I could never forget what happened to America that day. I would pour my heart and soul into protecting this country, whatever it took."

    Former President GEORGE W. BUSH: Yeah.

    LAUER: It took two wars.

    Pres. BUSH: Yeah.

    LAUER: It took thousands of lives, American lives, billions of dollars. You could say it took Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib .

    Pres. BUSH: Yeah.

    LAUER: And government eavesdropping and waterboarding. Did it take too much?

    Pres. BUSH: We didn't have an attack. Three thousand people died on September the 11th. And I vowed that I would do my duty to protect the American people , and they didn't hit us again. Time dulls memory, and I understand that. But it didn't dull my memory because I was charged with protecting America . And those decisions I made were necessary.

    MEREDITH VIEIRA, co-host: Hm.

    LAUER: Seven-thirty now on a Thursday morning. It's the fourth of November, 2010 . That, of course, former President George W. Bush opening up in his first interview since leaving the White House . I'm Matt Lauer alongside Meredith Vieira . And there's a lot more of that interview on a wide variety of subjects coming up on Monday night as we have a special interview, a prime-time interview, at 8, 7 Central time right here on NBC .

    VIEIRA: Then he's going to join us, as well, right?

    LAUER: That's right . A couple of days later on Wednesday, November 10th , President Bush will join us live in our studio. So we'll get to continue our conversation. We're looking forward to that very much.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments