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 after 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 interrogations of suspected top al-Qaida leaders.
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 Jr. in a move that provoked sharp criticism.
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 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.
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.