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FBI planning a bigger role in terrorism fight

Bureau agents will gather evidence to ensure that criminal prosecutions of alleged terrorists are an option. The move is a reversal of the Bush administration's emphasis on covert CIA actions.

May 28, 2009|Josh Meyer

WASHINGTON — The FBI and Justice Department plan to significantly expand their role in global counter-terrorism operations, part of a U.S. policy shift that will replace a CIA-dominated system of clandestine detentions and interrogations with one built around transparent investigations and prosecutions.

Under the "global justice" initiative, which has been in the works for several months, FBI agents will have a central role in overseas counter-terrorism cases. They will expand their questioning of suspects and evidence-gathering to try to ensure that criminal prosecutions are an option, officials familiar with the effort said.

Though the initiative is a work in progress, some senior counter-terrorism officials and administration policy-makers envision it as key to the national security strategy President Obama laid out last week -- one that presumes most accused terrorists have the right to contest the charges against them in a "legitimate" setting.

The approach effectively reverses a mainstay of the Bush administration's war on terrorism, in which global counter-terrorism was treated primarily as an intelligence and military problem, not a law enforcement one. That policy led to the establishment of the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; harsh interrogations; and detentions without trials.

The "global justice" initiative starts out with the premise that virtually all suspects will end up in a U.S. or foreign court of law.

That will be the case whether a suspected terrorist is captured on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, in the Philippine jungle or in a mosque in Nigeria, said one senior U.S. counter-terrorism official with knowledge of the initiative.

"Regardless of where any bad guy is caught, we want the bureau to be in a position to put charges on them," the official said, adding that the Bush administration's emphasis on CIA and military operations often marginalized the FBI -- especially when it came to interrogating suspects.

Like others interviewed for this article, the official spoke on the condition of anonymity because no one has been authorized to discuss the initiative publicly. "We have no comment on it at this time," FBI Assistant Director John J. Miller, the bureau's chief spokesman, said when asked about the initiative.

Upon taking office in January, Obama shut down the CIA's secret "black site" prisons and forbade the use of coercive interrogation techniques.

That opened the door for an increased role for the FBI, which for the last year has deployed more agents and analysts overseas to work alongside the CIA, U.S. military and foreign governments.

The initiative would mean even broader incorporation of the FBI and Justice Department into global counter-terrorism operations. Many national security officials said it is a vindication of the FBI, which before Sept. 11 had played a leading role in international terrorism investigations.

FBI agents for years had used non-coercive interrogations to thwart attacks, win convictions of Al Qaeda operatives and gain an encyclopedic knowledge of how the terrorist network operates. But they withdrew from questioning important suspects after the bureau opposed the tactics being used by the CIA and military -- often by inexperienced civilian contractors.

The harsh interrogations provided such bad information that U.S. agents spent years chasing false leads around the world, former FBI agent Ali Soufan testified before Congress two weeks ago. "It was one of the worst and most harmful decisions made in our efforts against Al Qaeda."

Bush administration officials, however, have defended the tactics and rejected claims that the FBI's methods would have worked better.

"With many thousands of lives potentially in the balance, we did not think it made good sense to let the terrorists answer questions in their own good time," former Vice President Dick Cheney said in a speech this month.

The FBI itself has been criticized, as has the CIA, for failing to connect the dots before the Sept. 11 attacks. In hindsight, the evidence pointed to a clear and intensive Al Qaeda effort to launch attacks on U.S. soil.

Before Sept. 11, the FBI model of "informed" interrogation -- knowing everything about a suspect to get them talking -- was the preferred method of intelligence and military interrogators.

Even veteran CIA agents said that abandoning that approach after Sept. 11 was counterproductive. "To use a contractor to ask the questions and not let the FBI guy who's collected all the evidence and knows all of the intelligence about these guys, it makes no sense at all," said former CIA counter-terrorism case agent Robert Baer.

One intelligence official said the FBI's expanded role in the global fight against terrorism was a natural outgrowth of the Obama administration's new priorities. "It stands to reason because, by executive order, the CIA is out of the long-term detention business," the official said, referring to Obama's closing of overseas prisons.

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