Washington: The CIA agreed to cover at least $5 million (Dh18.39 million) in legal fees for two contractors who were the architects of the agency's interrogation programme and personally conducted dozens of waterboarding sessions on terror detainees, former US officials said.

The secret agreement means taxpayers are paying to defend the men in a federal investigation over an interrogation tactic the United States now says is torture. The deal is even more generous than the protections the agency typically provides its own officers, giving the two men access to more money to finance their defences.

It has long been known that psychologists Jim Mitchell and Bruce Jessen created the CIA's interrogation programme. But former US intelligence officials said Mitchell and Jessen also repeatedly subjected terror suspects inside CIA-run secret prisons to waterboarding, a simulated drowning tactic.

The revelation of the contractors' involvement is the first known confirmation of any individuals who conducted waterboarding at the so-called black sites, underscoring just how much the agency relied on outside help in its most sensitive interrogations.

Normally, CIA officers buy insurance to cover possible legal bills. It costs about $300 a year for $1 million in coverage. Today, the CIA pays the premiums for most officers, but at the height of President George W. Bush's war on terror, officers had to pay half.

The Mitchell and Jessen arrangement, known as an "indemnity promise", was structured differently. Unlike CIA officers, whose identities are classified, Mitchell and Jessen were public citizens who received some of the earliest scrutiny by reporters and lawmakers. The two wanted more protection.

The agency agreed to pay the legal bills for the psychologists' firm, Mitchell, Jessen & Associates, directly from CIA accounts, according to several interviews with the former officials, who insisted on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to discuss the matter.

High-profile probes

The company has been embroiled in at least two high-profile Justice Department investigations in which it tapped the CIA to pay its legal bills. Neither Jamie Gorelick, who originally represented the company, nor Henry Schuelke, the current lawyer, returned messages seeking comment. Mitchell and Jessen also did not return calls for comment.

The CIA would not comment on any indemnity agreement.

"It's been nearly eight years since waterboarding, an interrogation method used on three detainees, was last used as part of a terrorist detention program that no longer exists," CIA spokesman George Little said.

After the terrorism attacks of September 11, 2001, Mitchell and Jessen sold the government on an interrogation programme for high-value Al Qaida members. The two psychologists had spent years training military officials to resist interrogations and, in doing so, had subjected US troops to techniques such as forced nudity, painful stress positions, sleep deprivation and waterboarding.