Interagency teams can now question terror suspects

By Walter Pincus and Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 6, 2010; A03

Interagency interrogation teams have started to question key terrorism suspects under a classified charter approved last week, but authorities have been slower to resolve pressing issues that emerged since Christmas -- including how to draw the line between gathering intelligence and building a legal case, according to federal officials and experts following the process.

The High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group, announced to fanfare by White House officials last summer, was not formally authorized until Jan. 28, under a previously unreported 14-page memo signed by the president's national security adviser, Gen. James L. Jones. The delay became a matter of political debate last month after members of Congress asked why the group had been not deployed to interrogate Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who is accused of trying to detonate an explosive Dec. 25 on an airliner about to land in Detroit.

Authorities, with help from the National Counterterrorism Center, are developing a list of terrorism suspects who represent critical intelligence targets. Each suspect will be assigned to an FBI-led interagency mobile interrogation team that will be ready in the event of a capture, several officials said.

Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III said in testimony to Congress this week that an informal version of the mobile interrogation units had been activated and used to question a Chicago man, and that another team had been employed against an unnamed suspect apprehended overseas.

"As we worked through a variety of administrative matters this fall . . . personnel were identified and started preparing for deployment," White House spokesman Ben LaBolt said Friday. "Though the group was formally stood up last week, this advance preparation provided us with the capability."

Interrogators from the CIA, the FBI and the Defense Department, with expertise in a particular country and jidahist group, will assemble background information on each suspect on the list even before he or she is apprehended, two officials said. The teams will create a preauthorized strategy for each target.

A lawyer from the Justice Department's National Security Division will provide legal advice to the group, which will be overseen by the National Security Council.

Developing protocols

U.S. citizens, such as the radical Yemeni American cleric Anwar al-Aulaqi, are among the targets likely to appear on the final list, a senior counterterrorism expert said. But explicit protocols have yet to be developed about when intelligence gathering ends and rights are afforded to people captured on U.S. soil -- the very problem posed by Abdulmutallab, 23, who remains in a prison outside Detroit.

The scion of a well-known banking family in Nigeria, Abdulmutallab appears to have been radicalized only recently. He eluded law-enforcement notice until the Christmas Day incident, which threatened the lives of 300 passengers and crew members on Northwest Flight 253.

The memo signed by Jones makes clear that more than 100 preexisting Joint Terrorism Task Forces set up by the FBI will take the lead in national security incidents within the United States. But intelligence analysts and interrogators who participate in the mobile teams can help with potentially deadly but previously unidentified suspects.

FBI agents are allowed to interrogate people in the United States without informing them of their constitutional rights to remain silent and to secure an attorney if the agents want to gather intelligence and protect public safety. But it remains unclear who will decide when Miranda warnings come into play in cases related to national security.

The issue of Miranda warnings erupted into political controversy after Republican lawmakers denounced the Justice Department and FBI for reading Abdulmutallab his constitutional rights on Christmas night.

Sen. Christopher Bond (Mo.), ranking Republican on the Senate intelligence committee, and Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, say the Obama administration is losing time-sensitive intelligence by shunting accused terrorists into the criminal justice system.

Keeping U.S. values

But administration officials insist that there is a way to gather intelligence without compromising American values. The Justice Department this week established a Web page highlighting intelligence successes it obtained through criminal cases.

Even overseas, the "primary objective" of the mobile interrogation units, an Obama administration official said, will be to gather intelligence to prevent terrorist strikes against the United States or its allies. But "where possible," the high-value units will collect information "in a manner that allows it to be used in a criminal prosecution," the official said.

The mobile units are limited to interrogation strategies contained in the Army Field Manual, which explicitly repudiates waterboarding and other methods employed in the early years of President George W. Bush's administration that critics have likened to torture. U.S. government employees will participate in the teams, unless there is a special need for linguistic expertise, in another break from the early Bush strategy of enlisting contractors to interrogate suspects.

Andrew McCabe, a veteran counterterrorism expert at the FBI who helped coordinate security efforts for President Obama's inauguration, has been selected to lead the effort. Two deputy directors, from the CIA and the Defense Department, also are in place.

Blair told the House intelligence committee this week: "We haven't completed all of the training and the setup, but even as we do, we have sent teams to -- actually, to interview some high-value detainees who exist now."

He said the administration is employing "principles" developed by the interrogation group in questioning Abdulmutallab, who authorities say has been cooperating with the FBI since late last week.

Mueller, in testimony to the Senate intelligence panel, said interrogators had already been dispatched to Chicago to perform "follow-up questioning" of David Coleman Headley, accused of acting as an advance man for the fiery Mumbai attacks, which killed more than 170 people in 2008.

"There, we had the luxury of time in order to do it," Mueller told lawmakers of Headley, who was arrested at a U.S. airport last year and held for weeks without public notice.

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