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Terrorist interrogation team approved

A new elite unit, to be directly overseen by the National Security Council, will comprise experts from intelligence and law enforcement agencies. Severe interrogation techniques will be banned.

August 24, 2009|Anne E. Kornblut

WASHINGTON — President Obama has approved the creation of an elite team of interrogators to question key suspected terrorists, 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 new unit, named the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group. Composed of experts from several intelligence and law enforcement agencies, the interrogation unit will be housed at the FBI but will be overseen by the National Security Council -- giving the White House direct oversight.

Seeking to signal a clean break from the George W. 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, whose findings will be made public today, recommended the new interrogation unit, along with other changes regarding the way prisoners are transferred overseas.

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.

Under the new guidelines, 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 condition of anonymity in order to discuss intelligence matters freely.

Using the Army Field Manual means that 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 the simulated drowning technique known 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 if 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 being unveiled today 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.

Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. 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 was 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 administration. According to recent reports, the CIA hired the private contracting firm Blackwater USA as part of a program to kill top Al Qaeda operatives.

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 individuals, 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 full time, though 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."

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Kornblut writes for the Washington Post.

Post staff writer Peter Finn contributed to this report.

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