By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
Battered by recriminations over waterboarding and other harsh techniques sanctioned by the Bush administration, the CIA is girding itself for more public scrutiny and is questioning whether agency personnel can conduct interrogations effectively under rules set out for the U.S. military, according to senior intelligence officials.
Harsh interrogations were only one part of its clandestine activities against al-Qaeda and other enemies, and agency members are worried that other operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan will come under review, the officials said.
CIA Director Leon Panetta said he has established a group at the agency to handle requests for documents by Congress, the prosecutors and any "truth commission." The agency is facing a dispute with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) over how much agency officials told congressional overseers about the harsh techniques.
The agency's defensiveness in part reflects a conviction that it is being forced to take the blame for actions approved by elected officials that have since fallen into disfavor. Former CIA director Michael V. Hayden said in an interview that CIA managers and operations officers have again been put "in a horrible position." Hayden recalled an officer asking, "Will I be in trouble five years from now for what I agree to do today?"
Although President Obama has said no CIA officers will be prosecuted for their roles in harsh interrogations if they remained within Justice Department guidelines in effect at the time, agency personnel still face subpoenas and testimony under oath before criminal, civil and congressional bodies.
As part of an ongoing criminal inquiry into the CIA's destruction of videotapes depicting waterboarding, CIA personnel will appear before a grand jury this week, according to two sources familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the case is continuing. The Senate intelligence committee is pursuing its investigation into whether harsh interrogations, including waterboarding, brought forward worthwhile intelligence, as agency and Bush administration officials have maintained.
Officially, the agency says there is no distraction. "The agency's fight against al-Qaeda and its allies continues undiminished," Paul Gimigliano, the acting head of CIA public affairs, said recently. "The job here, as always, is on getting the job done in accordance with the law." Top agency officials said the mood of concern that exists at headquarters is less apparent among personnel overseas.
The Obama administration's decisions to close the U.S. military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, make public Justice Department memos sanctioning harsh interrogation, and ban techniques authorized by the Bush administration are affecting the agency's operations.
Agency officials said they will carry out any future debriefings or interrogations under provisions of the 2006 version of the Army Field Manual. They said they also will assist other agencies that conduct interrogations in order to assess the accuracy of the information obtained.
Under an executive order signed by Obama on Jan. 20, the Field Manual is "the law of the land. . . . There is nothing outside it now," one intelligence official said. But according to several past agency and military officials, the Field Manual is sometimes so broad as to be unclear.
Its section on interrogation bans "violence, threats, or impermissible or unlawful physical contact," without specifying what is sanctioned. The manual also says an interrogator cannot threaten "the removal of protections afforded by law."
Present and past CIA officials maintain that other legal techniques exist beyond those mentioned in the Field Manual that should be available for use. Panetta has said he would go to the president for authority to use them if he believed it necessary.
For example, the "attention grasp," described as "grasping the individual with both hands, one hand on either side of the collar," is one of the 13 techniques employed in the past by the CIA and is listed in the Justice Department's May 10, 2005, memo. It is barred under the Field Manual. Unlike harsher techniques on the list, such as nudity, dietary control, sleep deprivation and waterboarding, CIA officials say they want the authority to use the attention grasp without going back to Washington for approval.
The CIA has also recommended to the presidential task force studying future rules for interrogation that the agency, FBI and Defense Department establish a joint interrogation training center so that all agencies understand the rules under which they operate.
The Field Manual, which was published in 2006, says that "direct approach" interrogation operations in World War II had a 90 percent effectiveness, and those in Vietnam, Kuwait and Iraq had a success rate of 95 percent. Afghanistan since 2002 and Iraq since 2003 are still being studied. "However," it adds, "unofficial studies indicate that in these operations, the direct approach has been dramatically less successful."
Another intelligence official, who also asked not to be identified, said waterboarding and other harsh techniques "were meant to get hardened terrorists to a point where they were willing to answer questions." That capability, the official said, "is now gone."
The special task force set up by Obama in January will determine whether the Field Manual interrogation guidelines are too narrow and whether "additional guidance is necessary for CIA," according to a White House statement. A report on that study is not expected before July.
Staff writer Carrie Johnson contributed to this report.