Three months after President Barack Obama was sworn into office, then-CIA Director Leon Panetta sent a letter to congressional oversight committees informing them that the agency was changing its torture policies.
But the CIA would still play a significant role in the interrogation of terrorism suspects, according to a top-secret letter Panetta wrote [pdf below] that was recently declassified by the CIA and obtained exclusively by VICE News in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.
Panetta's letter was sent to lawmakers just days after the Senate Intelligence Committee voted to begin an investigation into the efficacy of the CIA's detention and interrogation program. It also followed an executive order Obama signed as one of his first acts as president outlawing the use of so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques" and shuttering the CIA's network of black site prisons where detainees were held.
"Since assuming the job of Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), I have received several inquiries from the Intelligence Committees regarding CIA's current policies on detention, interrogation and rendition," Panetta wrote on April 8, 2009. "In particular, I have been asked about a particular contract for services related to [redacted] remaining CIA detention facilities. This letter sets forth my views on these matters."
The contract Panetta referred to in his four-page letter was one awarded to the firm Mitchell Jessen and Associates, which was headed by retired Air Force psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, who are widely credited as being the architects of the CIA's so-called "enhanced interrogation" program. The identity of the firm was redacted from Panetta's letter, but VICE News has confirmed it's the company to which he's referring.
"I have reviewed the CIA contract with [redacted] to provide services related to rendition, detention, and interrogation," Panetta wrote. "For the reasons set forth below, I am ordering that [redacted] contract be terminated. As a result of this action, all contracts for interrogation will be terminated."
His letter goes on to say that Mitchell and Jessen founded their firm in 2005 and that they were under contract to the CIA since 2002. Mitchell Jessen and Associates "provided interrogation services, security teams for renditions, facilities, training and other services."
"Since 2002, CIA has paid [redacted] a total of approximately $81 million for services and security costs related to rendition, detention and interrogation," Panetta wrote.
That figure was one of the key details cited in the Senate Intelligence Committee's damning torture report released last December that concluded that the use of "enhanced interrogation techniques" did not produce unique or valuable intelligence. The report, which identified Mitchell and Jessen by the pseudonyms Grayson Swigert and Hammond Dunbar, said they personally reaped an $81 million windfall for their services to the CIA.
But Mitchell disputed that figure in an exclusive interview last December with VICE News.
"It was not income provided to me," said Mitchell, who revealed to VICE News that he had personally waterboarded self-professed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and two other high-value terrorism suspects. "That was a multi-year commercial contract that was provided to a company that employed many people. I was paid by the hour, and only when I worked. I wasn't living hand-to-mouth, but it wasn't $81 million."
Mitchell said the vast majority of the $81 million was earmarked for "overhead, operating expenses, and salaries for employees."
"That commercial contract came about in response to a request for a proposal," Mitchell said. "The company's bid was then evaluated by contracting personnel to determine if the costs were reasonable. The government decided to issue the contract, they conducted multiple audits of the contract, and they annually renewed it until it was canceled for the convenience of the government. When initially asked if I was interested in bidding, I was told it was going to be an open competition. Later they decided to make it a sole-source contract."
Well-known California civil rights attorney Stephen Yagman quietly filed a false claims act lawsuit against Mitchell and Jessen last December in an effort to recover the $81 million they were paid for their work. The government is currently fighting that complaint and is paying the legal fees of Mitchell and Jessen's private attorneys. (Yagman is the plaintiff in the suit; he was stripped of his law license in 2010 after being convicted of tax evasion.)
Panetta's letter said that on January 30, 2009, before he was named director of the CIA, "agency officials informed [redacted, understood to be Mitchell Jessen and Associates] that the agency would exercise its fourth and final option year under the contract related to rendition, detention and interrogation, running from March 2009 — March 2010."
But because the CIA would not be leading the effort to interrogate terrorism suspects, and because the black site prisons were closed, Panetta said Mitchell Jessen and Associates was advised that their CIA contract would be "reduced in scope to include only payment for up to [redacted] security officers."
Apparently, Panetta canceled that part of the contract as well. At the time, he said there were "some risks to this decision."
"Terminating this contract will mean that additional individuals will learn the site locations," Panetta said in his letter. "I am also aware that CIA will still be required to pay termination settlement costs, which we are still estimating."
Watch VICE News' interview with former CIA deputy director Michael Morell.
But Panetta said the benefits outweighed the risks, notably in the form of a $4 million savings to taxpayers. He made brief mention of the savings in a message he sent to CIA employees that the agency posted on its website in 2009, which also noted that the agency no longer allows contractors to conduct interrogations and that "CIA no longer operates detention facilities or blacksites."
The notification on the agency's website led John Sifton, a noted human rights researcher who is credited with exposing the existence of many of the CIA's black site locations, to remark at the time that Panetta's statement amounted to a "strange set of claims."
"Panetta seems to be saying that 'there are no sites,' that 'we've submitted a plan to close the sites,' and that 'we're closing the sites' all at the same time," Sifton wrote in a Daily Beast column. "But then he also makes it sound as though the CIA is 'taking charge' of the sites from contractors, and that 'taking over' the sites will save $4 million, suggesting they're being kept open for the time being. (From where comes the $4 million in savings? If the sites are being closed, isn't the money saved anyway?) Each of his statements seems to contradict the last."
A likely explanation, however, is that as the CIA worked to shut down the black site prisons, in accordance with Obama's executive order, there was a period of time where the facilities remained open but were not operational.
Although his letter made clear that the CIA was no longer the lead agency involved in the interrogations of terrorism suspects held by foreign governments and the US military overseas, Panetta said agency contractors would still have a role. But the way in which the suspected terrorists are interrogated would dramatically change.
"Our debriefers are subject-matter experts who question detainees to elicit intelligence," Panetta wrote. "These officers utilize a dialogue style of questioning that is fully compatible with interrogation approaches authorized and listed in the Army Field Manual. As before, strict internal Agency policies govern these debriefings."
He said CIA officers are required to report any "inappropriate conduct or allegations of abuse" observed during the debriefings and "must cease their participation if they become aware of such abuses." Additionally, Panetta said that the CIA still "retains the authority to engage in renditions," which would be decided by the CIA on a "case-by-case basis."
The CIA told VICE News that the agency's policies pertaining to rendition and interrogation outlined by Panetta remain in effect.
Follow Jason Leopold on Twitter: @JasonLeopold