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New interrogation unit aids in questioning Times Square bomb suspect

Faisal Shahzad is arraigned after he said he no longer wished to speak with interrogators, who included members of a group established to replace a controversial CIA program.

May 19, 2010|By David S. Cloud and Richard A. Serrano, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Washington —

The Pakistani American accused of trying to bomb Times Square has been questioned with the help of a new interrogation unit that replaced a controversial CIA program dismantled by President Obama, U.S. officials said Tuesday.

The suspect, Faisal Shahzad, appeared in court for the first time Tuesday, two weeks after his May 3 arrest. Wearing gray pants and a gray shirt, he was formally advised of the five felony charges against him, including the attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction. In all, he was told, he faces a maximum punishment of two life sentences plus 60 years.

Shahzad did not enter a plea. But he spoke briefly during the 10-minute appearance with his attorney, public defender Julia Gatto, in the courtroom. He reportedly asked earlier in the day for an attorney and said he no longer wished to speak with interrogators, a decision that prompted the court arraignment.

The new unit that has been assisting in Shahzad's questioning is known as the High-Value Interrogation Group, or HIG. It was activated several months ago and is staffed mainly by personnel from the FBI, CIA and Defense Department, according to senior administration officials who on Tuesday provided the fullest description of the unit's procedures to date. They were not authorized to comment publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The HIG's mandate, the officials said, is to ensure that intelligence about terrorism plots is obtained quickly after the arrest of a terrorism suspect.

Though there was no reference during the arraignment to the HIG's role in questioning Shahzad, Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for Manhattan, said Shahzad had been cooperative and "has provided valuable intelligence from which further investigation action has been taken."

The HIG was created as a replacement for the CIA interrogation program operated during the George W. Bush administration, and the willingness of administration officials to go into detail about its operations appeared aimed in part at rebutting criticism from congressional Republicans and others that the White House is focusing too much on prosecution of terrorism suspects and not enough on obtaining intelligence from detainees.

Obama moved to overhaul interrogation and detention guidelines soon after taking office, including the creation of a task force on interrogation and transfer policies, which recommended creation of the interrogation group.

Though information gathered by HIG interrogators can feed into the prosecution of terrorism suspects, that is not the unit's main focus, the officials said. After an arrest, either by U.S. authorities or a foreign government, a decision is made to activate the unit's personnel, who are deployed overseas or in the U.S. and can participate in the interrogation or merely advise those doing the questioning, the officials said.

The HIG "brings to bear expertise in the U.S. government so we can ensure we optimize intelligence collection from individuals," a senior administration official said.

The group is headed by an FBI official, with deputies from the CIA and Defense Department. Its permanent staff includes linguists, terrorism group experts, regional specialists and interrogators trained in questioning Al Qaeda members and other so-called high-value detainees.

Because of concerns about CIA personnel being involved in domestic law enforcement, its personnel assigned to the HIG only advise FBI and other agencies when suspects are being held on U.S. soil, a senior official said.

But if a detainee is being held by a foreign government, the CIA "may participate in the questioning," the official said.

Meanwhile, a Senate report released Tuesday on the attempted bombing of a U.S. airliner on Christmas Day concluded that when a Nigerian was allowed to board the plane, allegedly with explosives in his pants, U.S. intelligence agencies had repeated some of the mistakes they made before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"Some of the systemic errors this review identified also were cited as failures prior to 9/11," the report concluded.

It placed much of the blame on the National Counterterrorism Center, which Congress created after 2001 to analyze intelligence and prevent attacks.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees the center, said in a statement that it has already taken "corrective actions," including creating a team of analysts "to thoroughly and exhaustively pursue terrorist threat threads."

david.cloud@latimes.com

richard.serrano@latimes.com

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