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Interrogation Contracts That the CIA Won’t Let You See

This is my favorite rejection under the Freedom of Information Act ever.

In May, following a wealth of disclosures about the role of the Survival Evasion Resistence Escape program, which trains U.S. troops to resist torture, in shaping the Defense Department and the CIA’s interrogation programs under the Bush administration, it appeared that one of the biggest unanswered questions was how and why the CIA under George Tenet knew to turn to contract psychologists with SERE experience like James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen for assistance in devising interrogation programs. Retired FBI agent Ali Soufan testified that one such contractor — identified by Jane Meyer as Mitchell — on the Abu Zubaydah interrogation, the wellspring from which all future CIA “enhanced interrogation” emerged, overrulled all his FBI and CIA colleagues in order to experiment with SERE techniques.

That raised an additional concern: how deeply did CIA interrogation involvement with Mitchell and Jessen, who started a consulting firm after leaving SERE, actually run? Apparently pretty deeply: CIA Director Leon Panetta canceled all contractor involvement in interrogations in the spring, although Mayer reports there are some caveats to that. But it’s unclear, and so I filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the CIA for “all contracts signed between the CIA and the firm of Mitchell Jessen & Associates between September 2001 and April 2009″ including those where M-J are subcontractors. After I filed it, I realized it was imprecisely worded: since there was no Mitchell Jessen & Associates in late 2001, I probably wouldn’t be able to answer my first question anyway.

As it happens: moot point! Today I got my response, courtesy of Delores M. Nelson, the CIA’s information and privacy coordinator:

… [T]he CIA can neither confirm nor deny the existence or nonexistence of records responsive to your request. The fact of the existence or nonexistence of requested records is currently and properly classified and is intelligence sources and methods information that is protected from disclosure by section 6 of the CIA Act of 1949, as amended. Therefore, your request has been denied pursuant to FOIA exemptions (b)(1) and (b)(3).

Now, the fact of Mitchell Jessen & Associates contracting for CIA is not a secret. In addition to Mayer’s reporting, Katherine Eban delved deeply into the company’s history with CIA for Vanity Fair in 2007. The company even replied to her questions. And yet the CIA contends that even confirming the existence of any contracts it signed with the company would jeopardize national security. There’s an appeals process for my rejected FOIA request; I’ll be taking full advantage of it.

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