Obama Approves New Team to Question Terror Suspects

President Barack Obama has approved creation of a new, special terrorism-era interrogation unit to be supervised by the White House, a top aide said Monday. Video by AP
By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 24, 2009; 11:31 AM

President Obama has approved the creation of an elite team of interrogators to question key terrorism suspects, part of a broader effort to revamp U.S. policy on detention and interrogation, senior administration officials said Sunday.

Obama signed off late last week on the unit, named the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group, or HIG. On Monday, White House spokesman Bill Burton confirmed that the high-value interrogation unit will be based at the FBI and will operate "consistent with the army field manual" which provides guidelines for questioners.

Made up of experts from several intelligence and law enforcement agencies, the interrogation unit will be will be overseen by the National Security Council -- shifting the center of gravity away from the CIA and giving the White House direct oversight.

Burton said the decision to place the unit in the FBI does not put the CIA out of the business of questioning terrorists. He said the agency would still have a seat at the table as the interrogations move forward.

"The CIA obviously has a very important role to play," Burton said during a briefing conducted on Martha's Vineyard, where Obama is vacationing. He said the new unit "houses all these different elements under one roof where they can best perform their duties."

Seeking to signal a clean break from the Bush administration, Obama moved to overhaul interrogation and detention guidelines soon after taking office, including the creation of a task force on interrogation and transfer policies.

The task force recommended the new interrogation unit, along with other changes regarding the way prisoners are transferred overseas. Its findings are expected to be made public on Monday.

A separate task force on detainees, which will determine the fate of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and future regulations about the duration and location of detentions of suspected terrorists, has not concluded its work.

Also on Monday, a government official confirmed a separate report in the New York Times that Justice Department ethics investigators had recommended that Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. reopen investigation of several cases alleging abuse by CIA employees and contractors. Many of the cases had been considered by federal prosecutors in Virginia, who ultimately declined to seek grand jury indictments because of difficulties with witnesses and evidence.

The report on investigating abuse cases, written by the department's Office of Professional Responsibility, is undergoing declassification review and its release is not imminent, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

The recommendation about reopening a small number of cases is only a small portion of the report's findings.

As previously reported, the OPR report also will recommend that at least two Bush administration lawyers, Jay S. Bybee and John C. Yoo, face further investigation by state legal disciplinary authorities. Such a probe would not expose them to criminal sanctions for their work in developing memos that supported such harsh interrogation techniques as waterboarding and wall slamming.

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