WASHINGTON – The Justice Department prosecutor appointed this week to examine the CIA’s interrogation program will revisit long-dormant cases of abuse by the agency’s civilian contractors, bringing new attention to a little-known but controversial element of the Bush administration’s war on terrorism.
Civilian contractors used by the CIA at secret overseas facilities were said to be involved in a series of cases of detainee abuses and deaths in the years following the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, but only one was ever prosecuted.
The contractors also played a key but secret role in the CIA’s brutal interrogations of suspected top al-Qaida leaders at black-site prisons overseas.
The new scrutiny will be a central part of the preliminary review by federal prosecutor John Durham, according to Justice Department officials and others familiar with the review.
Durham was appointed this week by Attorney General Eric Holder in a move that provoked sharp criticism from both ends of the political spectrum.
Conservatives fear Durham’s assignment will become a “witch hunt” targeting well-meaning intelligence officers. Liberals want the veteran prosecutor to go after the political and legal architects of the Bush administration’s so-called “enhanced-interrogation” program.
However, indications are that the scope of Durham’s assignment will be more limited and may not exceed a dozen or so cases, most of which have already been the subject of several reviews. Durham may be able to expand his purview later, especially if he recommends a full-scale criminal investigation after concluding the preliminary review.
The investigation could then delve into whether CIA supervisors and officials at agency headquarters knew about or gave authorization to interrogators to use tactics that went beyond those approved in Justice Department legal memos.
Much of the CIA interrogation program was farmed out to civilian contractors, in part because the spy agency had stopped questioning insurgents and suspected terrorists following charges that it supported torture in Latin America and elsewhere in earlier decades.
By the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the agency had few experts on interrogation tactics and brought in civilians in a crash effort to glean intelligence from suspected terrorists, according to the inspector general’s report and other U.S. officials and documents.
Compounding the problem was the fact that the CIA hastily launched the interrogation program and provided little authoritative guidance to those in the field about what they could and could not do, the inspector general’s report said.
That lack of guidance could undermine potential prosecutions because the Justice Department would have to prove that the interrogators intended to cause grave harm to the detainees.
Two contractors were closely associated with the enhanced interrogation program: Bruce Jessen and Jim Mitchell, both former Defense Department officials who are regarded as architects of the CIA’s use of waterboarding, which simulates drowning, and other methods. Jessen and Mitchell operated out of an office in Spokane.