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Obama Approves New Team to Question Terror Suspects

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.

Under the new White House guidelines for interrogating detainees, interrogators must stay within the parameters of the Army Field Manual when questioning suspects. The task force concluded -- unanimously, officials said -- that "the Army Field Manual provides appropriate guidance on interrogation for military interrogators and that no additional or different guidance was necessary for other agencies," according to a three-page summary of the findings. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters freely.

Using the Army Field Manual means certain techniques in the gray zone between torture and legal questioning -- such as playing loud music or depriving prisoners of sleep -- will not be allowed. Which tactics are acceptable was an issue "looked at thoroughly," one senior official said. Obama had already banned certain severe measures that the Bush administration had permitted, such as waterboarding.

Still, the Obama task force advised that the group develop a "scientific research program for interrogation" to develop new techniques and study existing ones to see whether they work. In essence, the unit would determine a set of best practices on interrogation and share them with other agencies that question prisoners.

The administration is releasing the new guidelines on the day when what it sees as the worst practices of the Bush administration are being given another public airing. New details of prisoner treatment are expected to be included in a long-awaited CIA inspector general's report also being unveiled Monday about the spy agency's interrogation program. The report could set off a fresh debate between members of the current administration and the previous one over whether such tactics are necessary to prod detainees into cooperation and, ultimately, keep the country safe.

Holder is also considering whether to appoint a criminal prosecutor to investigate past interrogation abuses. Obama and White House officials have stated their desire to look ahead on national security; White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said last week that the administration is eager to keep "going forward" and that "a hefty litigation looking backward is not what we believe is in the country's best interest."

But a steady drip of stories about past practices has focused attention on the Bush administratio n. According to recent reports, the CIA hired the private contracting firm Blackwater USA as part of a program to kill top al-Qaeda operatives.

In addition to the new interrogation unit, the Obama task force recommended that the State Department play a more active role in transferring detainees between countries. When the United States is moving a prisoner to another country, it "may rely on assurances" from the foreign government that the detainee will not be tortured. But the State Department will now be involved in evaluating whether such assurances are sincere, the officials said, and the United States will also seek new ways of monitoring treatment of prisoners in foreign custody. Other recommendations involve prisoner transfers that are classified, the summary said.

Members of the new interrogation unit will have the authority to travel around the world to talk to suspects and will be trained to handle certain high-interest people, such as al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Linguists and cultural and interrogation specialists will be assigned to the group and will have "some division of responsibility" regarding types of detainees, a senior administration official said. Most of the group's members will work there full time, although they will have part-time support from the FBI.

Interrogators will not necessarily read detainees their rights before questioning, instead making that decision on a case-by-case basis, officials said. That could affect whether some material can be used in a U.S. court of law. The main purpose of the new unit, however, is to glean intelligence, especially about potential terrorist attacks, the officials said.

"It is not going to, certainly, be automatic in any regard that they are going to be Mirandized," one official said, referring to the practice of reading defendants their rights. "Nor will it be automatic that they are not Mirandized."

The director of the HIG is expected to come from the FBI, and the deputy will be selected from one of the intelligence agencies, such as the CIA. Although past CIA techniques have come under fire in the debate over torture, the agency will continue to play "a very important role," one official said.

The CIA had recommended to the presidential task force that the agency, the FBI and the Defense Department establish a joint interrogation training center so that all agencies understand the rules under which they operate.

Staff writer Peter Finn contributed to this report.

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