updated 5/12/2004 11:44:09 PM ET 2004-05-13T03:44:09

The CIA did not have a trained corps of interrogators until the war on terror began and turned in part to contractors to handle the surge of detainees, including in Iraq. Some of those sent in are now under investigation in prisoner deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Officials are considering one case as a homicide and have referred it to the Justice Department.

In interviews, intelligence veterans who spent decades with the CIA said interrogators are needed mostly during conflicts when a nation holds large numbers of military prisoners, which, until Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States had not had since the Vietnam War.

The CIA has used coercion in interrogating prisoners who were high-level members of al-Qaida, The New York Times reported Wednesday on its Web site, quoting unidentified current and former counterterrorism officials. At least one CIA worker has been disciplined for using a gun to threaten a detainee, the Times said.

Agency interrogators used a tactic known as “water boarding” on terrorism suspect Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, a tactic in which a strapped-down prisoner is pushed under water, making him believe he might drown, according to the Times. Mohammed is believed to have helped plan the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The CIA has therefore had to develop the skill of interrogation since the 2001 Afghanistan invasion, said Milt Bearden, a former senior manager for the agency.

“There is no reserve within the CIA of experienced, trained interrogators,” Bearden said. “There never was.”

CIA Director George Tenet hinted at the issue in testimony before the Sept. 11 commission, saying the United States remains five years away from having the kind of clandestine service the country requires. Former officials say that would include interrogators, part of the CIA’s directorate of operations.

The new focus on prisoner abuse has drawn attention to the role of the normally secretive CIA in the interrogations of prisoners. With at least two of the cases involving independent contractors, it also has highlighted the agency’s practice of using short-term personnel for its missions.

It is unclear how many contract interrogators the agency uses. The Army employed 27 contract interrogators at the now-famous Abu Ghraib prison, the deputy commander of Central Command, Lt. Gen. Lance L. Smith, said in Senate testimony Friday.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the United States has detained and interrogated prisoners around the globe, including at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; Afghanistan and Iraq.

The CIA’s defenders caution the agency’s inspector general has not completed its investigation into at least two deaths in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. Some say the investigation’s scope also appears to narrower than the Army’s inquiries into perhaps a dozen unjustified deaths and even more allegations of abuse at military-run prisons.

But agency critics caution that, unlike the Army’s leaked Taguba Report, there is no documentation to offer a glimpse of the CIA personnel’s alleged abuses. And with the CIA inspector general investigating, it is possible that the final report could remain classified, as is often the case, leaving many details largely unknown.

Two agency officials declined to comment on interrogation issues.

The CIA runs a network of detention facilities worldwide, but details about them are largely kept secret, including their locations. The military and the CIA are believed to have separate rules and guidelines on prisoner detentions and interrogations, which the agency has declined to provide.

Experts generally say that interrogation is a specialty that requires training, experience and an understanding of the human psyche and cultures.

When contractors are used, the same rules of interrogation governing CIA personnel would apply, said Lee Strickland, who retired from the CIA in December after 30 years and now teaches at the University of Maryland.

Privately, others say the rules may exist but question if they’re followed.   One former intelligence officer, who still works in government and was approached about becoming a contractor, said it’s very possible that some contractors wouldn’t have gone through the full CIA training program. The former officer spoke on the condition of anonymity.

There may be tremendous financial incentives for becoming a contractor. Known as “green badgers” for the color of their IDs, CIA contractors take various short-term assignments, sometimes for triple their government salaries. What was once a $40,000 a year government job could transition to an 18-month assignment, paying $150,000 or more.

Strickland, whose assignments included the CIA general counsel’s office, said the CIA, like many government agencies and private companies, has turned to contractors as a financially effective way to bring personnel with special skills, such as interrogation, to the job.

“It is an expertise,” he said.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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