Interrogation Teams Are Months Away
22 Jan 2010
WASHINGTON—The head of a new elite terrorism-interrogation program said Thursday that it will take several more months to establish teams that could question high-profile suspects.
The teams are part of an overhaul of counterterrorism policy and have become an issue in a partisan battle over the Obama administration's handling of the suspect in a botched Christmas Day airline bombing attempt.
The High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group, or HIG, will consist of three to five teams of interrogators based in Washington and largely drawn from the ranks of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, with some from the Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Department.
Andrew McCabe, a veteran FBI counterterrorism investigator who is leading the new program, said in an interview that the bureau can currently cobble together an ad-hoc team of interrogators if the need arises.
Some Republican lawmakers say the administration squandered a chance to get intelligence from Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who was charged in the Christmas incident, by not declaring him an "enemy combatant" and putting him in military custody for interrogation.
Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, in an apparent gaffe Wednesday, criticized the FBI for not using the elite teams to interrogate the suspect. Later in the day, Mr. Blair retreated from the comments, claiming they were "misconstrued."
Mr. McCabe said Thursday that the interrogation teams will use methods already used by the FBI and other agencies. President Obama has ordered that the techniques must comply with the Army Field Manual, which prohibits interrogation methods considered to be torture.
"There's no magic in the hat; these teams will not have different tools from anyone else," Mr. McCabe said. "What the teams will have is the combined expertise of the agencies and a focused approach that brings together multiple disciplines, the best current intelligence on the target, and the benefit of having trained, prepared, and deployed together as a team."
Missouri Sen. Kit Bond, the top Republican on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said the he was "steamed" after learning the HIG teams weren't yet functioning. "If [Osama] bin Laden were captured tomorrow, who would interrogate him? Detroit [FBI] Field Office agents?" Mr. Bond said.
The Justice Department disputed the criticism of the handling of Mr. Abdulmutallab's case. "Neither detaining Abdulmutallab under the laws of war or referring him for prosecution in military commissions would force him to divulge intelligence or necessarily prevent him from obtaining an attorney," said Matthew Miller, a Justice Department spokesman.
Mr. Miller said that FBI agents interrogated Mr. Abdulmutallab on Christmas Day "and obtained intelligence that has already proved useful in the fight against Al Qaeda." It was only later that day, Mr. Miller said, "after the interrogation had already yielded intelligence, that he was read his Miranda rights. After the department informed the president's national security team about its planned course of action, Mr. Abdulmutallab was charged in criminal court."
The new interrogation program is intended to replace a CIA program that became mired in controversy over the use of harsh tactics that administration officials call "torture."
Administration officials say the National Security Council is still reviewing operational details of how the teams will operate. Mr. McCabe and deputies from the CIA and Defense Department are seeking office space in Washington's Virginia suburbs and preparing to pick members of the interrogation teams.
Initial plans are for the teams to be used overseas only, though the administration hasn't ruled out using them in the U.S. for incidents such as the Christmas bomb plot.
"It seems absolutely foolish not to use it domestically," said Philip Heymann, a former deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration and one of the chief developers of the new teams.
Mr. Heymann and other members of a small government advisory board proposed the development of the teams to replace the government's reliance on CIA interrogators for terror suspects. The recommendation was largely adopted by the White House in August.
"They were moving forward, but carefully, to set up their operation," Mr. Heymann said. He added that he wasn't troubled by the time it's taking to launch the teams because he expects them to be used for years to come and it's important they be carefully assembled.
The CIA has tapped a "seasoned" officer from its clandestine service as one of the teams' deputy directors, a U.S. intelligence official said, adding that the agency's main contribution will be it's knowledge of al Qaeda. "That's a key part of the substantive knowledge that will make this effort effective," the official said.
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