CIA Will Cover Legal Fees for Officers Ensnared in Interrogation Probe

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 28, 2009

CIA Director Leon Panetta decided Thursday that the agency will ensure legal representation for case officers who become caught up in investigations of alleged interrogation abuses of detainees at overseas locations, a senior intelligence official said.

Panetta's decision follows Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.'s appointment of a special prosecutor earlier this week to conduct a preliminary review of whether federal laws were violated during the interrogations. When working on controversial assignments, many CIA officers take out personal liability insurance, which sometimes reimburses legal fees if they face lawsuits or criminal charges, but others do not.

"Panetta will do everything he can to ensure that anyone who needs legal representation has it, whether they have liability insurance or not," said the senior intelligence official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak before the decision is publicly announced. "It's a question of fairness. People who did tough jobs for the country won't be left by the side of the road."

The new federal inquiry will be conducted by Assistant U.S. Attorney John H. Durham, who since 2008 has been investigating the destruction of CIA videotapes of detainees undergoing waterboarding.

In that investigation, Durham has asked agency contractors to give testimony before a grand jury in Alexandria next month, according to three sources familiar with the matter. It is not clear that the witnesses will testify.

Officials said the number of CIA employees seeking legal representation could grow larger than the relatively small number of people directly engaged in contact with detainees as Durham gathers information, interviews agency employees and takes testimony in his expanded inquiry.

Several CIA officials already have private lawyers being paid by insurance companies, and others are having fees covered directly by the agency. At least one officer has a lawyer working without charge, according to individuals familiar with the situation.

One insurance firm specializing in federal employee professional liability insurance, Wright & Co., charges $292 annually for coverage and pays up to $200,000 "in defense costs for federal government initiated administrative proceedings and investigations," according to its Web site. But experts said legal fees could run far higher than that for lengthy cases.

"Most CIA officers don't have much money and could go into debt to hire a good lawyer," said a lawyer who has represented an agency official in the past and who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he may be involved in future investigations.

President Obama in April told senior CIA officials that the administration would not prosecute or investigate agency personnel in the wake of disclosure of Justice Department memos that first outlined harsh interrogation techniques.

In announcing Durham's inquiry on Monday, Holder said CIA officers "need to be protected from legal jeopardy when they act in good faith and within the scope of legal guidance."

Staff writer Carrie Johnson contributed to this report.

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