11.9.01

President Obama’s High Value Detainee Interrogation Group

In Post-9/11 Domestic Anti-Terrorism Efforts on August 24, 2009 at 6:16 pm

President Obama creates a group in charge of interrogating high vaue detainees, and for the first time since the creation of the CIA, the FBI will have jurisdiction over international terrorist interrogations:

President Obama has approved the establishment of a special unit of terrorist interrogators based out of the FBI, senior administration officials said Monday. The move comes in the wake of criticism of questionable CIA interrogation techniques, such as waterboarding and the transfer of detainees to countries where torture is common. A 2004 CIA report detailing the use of unauthorized interrogation methods — including the threatened use of a gun and an electric drill — is expected to be made public Monday.

The decision to place the FBI, rather than the CIA, in charge of the interrogations of suspected terrorists represents a major shift in U.S. national security policy. 

The change is based on the recommendation of an interrogation task force established by Obama shortly after taking office in January.

The interagency High Value Detainee Interrogation Group will be overseen by the National Security Council and “draw on interrogators from defense, intelligence and law enforcement,” a senior administration official said.

The group will be tasked in part with ensuring that future interrogations comply with restrictions outlined in the U.S. Army Field Manual. The manual provides “adequate and effective means” of conducting interrogations, the administration officials said, though they left open the possibility of adding new methods based on the latest scientific research regarding “best practices” for interrogation. “There will be full transparency” regarding any new techniques that might be allowed as a result of such research, one of the officials said.

The State Department also will play a more prominent role in overseeing transfers of suspected terrorists to other countries for interrogation, the official said. The department will help ensure suspected terrorists are not abused or tortured.

“The new policies proposed by the Task Force will allow us to draw the best personnel from across the government to conduct interrogations that will yield valuable intelligence and strengthen our national security,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in a written statement.

“There is no tension between strengthening our national security and meeting our commitment to the rule of law, and these new policies will accomplish both.”

Asked to comment on the transfer of responsibility for interrogations from the CIA to the FBI, two former senior CIA officials said the agency never intended to handle detentions and that it essentially was forced to do so as a result of its pursuit of suspected terrorists after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

“The CIA didn’t want to house this initiative,” a U.S. government official said.

Some of the questionable tactics used in pursuing terrorists will be highlighted Monday by the release of a 2004 report from the CIA’s inspector general, sources familiar with the report confirmed. The report outlines the use of multiple unauthorized detainee interrogation methods.

Among other things, the report states that CIA interrogators threatened an al Qaeda prisoner with a gun and an electric drill to try to scare him into giving up information, the sources said.

The gun and drill were used in two separate interrogation sessions against Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, one of the sources indicated. Al-Nashiri is accused of plotting the 2000 attack on the USS Cole, which left 17 U.S. sailors dead.

The sources did not want to be identified because the report had not been made public. A federal judge in New York has ordered a redacted version of the report to be released as part of a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union.

“This is in many ways an old story,” CIA director Leon Panetta said in a written statement.

“The outlines of prior interrogation practices, and many of the details, are public already. The use of enhanced interrogation techniques, begun when our country was responding to the horrors of September 11th, ended in January. For the CIA now, the challenge is not the battles of yesterday, but those of today and tomorrow.”

The interrogations took place in the CIA’s secret prisons before 2006, when President Bush moved all detainees from such facilities to the federal prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, both sources said.

Details of the report were first published by Newsweek late Friday.

Newsweek also reported that, according to sources citing the inspector general’s report, interrogators staged mock executions to try to frighten detainees into talking. In one instance, Newsweek reported, a gun was fired off in a room next to one terrorism suspect so he would think another prisoner was being killed.

A CIA spokesman would not talk about specifics of the inspector general’s report but said that all the incidents described in it have been reviewed by government prosecutors.

“The CIA in no way endorsed behavior — no matter how infrequent — that went beyond formal guidance. This has all been looked at; professionals in the Department of Justice decided if and when to pursue prosecution. That’s how the system was supposed to work, and that’s how it did work,” CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano said.

One of the sources, a former intelligence official who is familiar with the report, said that while the report “reaffirmed” the interrogation program, it “also showed some had strayed off center.”

The official said about a dozen cases of potential misconduct by interrogators were referred to the Justice Department. Of those, only one person was prosecuted, the official said, with the rest being referred to the CIA accountability board, an internal disciplinary board. Two people resigned rather than face the CIA board, the official said.

The official said that when CIA leadership found out about the drill incident, they were “angry as hell.”

The official called it “nickel-and-dime foolishness” that was not tolerated. The individual who used the drill was pulled from the program and “sharply reprimanded,” the official said.

Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the ACLU, released a statement Sunday saying, “Leaked portions of the CIA inspector general’s report offer more proof that government officials committed serious crimes while interrogating prisoners. So-called ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ like mock executions and threatening prisoners with guns and power drills are not only reprehensible but illegal.”

In anticipation of the release of the report Monday, Romero said, “Releasing the report with minimal redactions is essential to knowing what crimes were committed and who was involved.”

The release of the inspector general’s report comes as Holder is considering whether to appoint a prosecutor to investigate the CIA interrogation program, begun by the Bush administration after the September 11 attacks.

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