Obama considering special CIA interrogation squad

(WSJ)   WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is considering overhauling the way terror suspects are interrogated by creating a small team of professionals drawn from across the government, according to people familiar with a proposal that will be submitted to the White House.

The new unit, comprising members of spy services and law-enforcement agencies, would be used for so-called high-value detainees, they said. In a switch from Bush-era efforts, it wouldn’t be run by the Central Intelligence Agency, though who might be in charge isn’t specified.

One of the team’s tasks would likely be to devise a new set of interrogation methods, according to one person familiar with the proposal. Those techniques could be drawn from sources ranging from scientific studies to the psychology behind television ads.

The new interrogation team, if adopted, would represent the Obama administration’s effort to sweep away a contentious counterterrorism issue that has dogged the CIA and Justice Department since a U.S. network of secret prisons was revealed in 2005.

The team would reduce the CIA’s controversial role in interrogations, but the agency remains at odds with Congress. On Friday, the House intelligence committee launched a probe into whether the agency broke the law by withholding information from the panel about a secret plan examining al Qaeda hit teams as well as other matters.

CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano said the agency will “work closely with the committee on this review.”

There could, however, be some similarities with the approach taken by the Bush administration. The team’s efforts, for example, would focus more on gathering intelligence than on assembling evidence suitable for use in a criminal trial.

In addition, the team would be asked to devise noncoercive procedures that may differ from the 19 permitted in the Army Field Manual, which include providing rewards for information and playing on a detainee’s anxiety or other emotions. That document has emerged as a favored standard among many lawmakers and some human-rights groups.

Mr. Obama shut the network of secret CIA prisons on his second full day in office and launched two reviews — one of interrogation practices and the other of the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The interrogation proposal, written by a Justice Department-led task force, is being finalized and neither review will be completed by a Tuesday deadline.

There is general support within the Obama administration for a professional interrogation team from multiple agencies, said one person familiar with the task force recommendations. The debate is over the details of how to do it: who should be in charge, where it should be housed within the government, and what its composition will be.

It isn’t clear whether Congress would have any special oversight role beyond its regular duties.

A Justice spokesman referred questions to the White House. White House spokesman Benjamin LaBolt said the president hasn’t yet reviewed the proposal.

The CIA’s Mr. Gimigliano said the agency is working with its counterparts “to produce a solution that honors the law and helps our country obtain the intelligence it needs.”

The Task Force on Interrogation and Transfer Policies, which compiled the recommendations, was led by J. Douglas Wilson, chief of the national-security unit in the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Northern District of California. The task force included representatives from the director of national intelligence, Pentagon, CIA and other security agencies.

The CIA’s interrogation program was developed in an ad hoc way after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. It was largely derived from techniques taught to American soldiers to help them evade harsh treatment if they were captured.

The interrogation unit would include perhaps two dozen people who would research, master and conduct noncoercive interrogations of detainees. The team would be drawn from those with relevant experience, probably from agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, CIA and Pentagon, said people familiar with the plans. The unit would likely develop contingency plans for what to do if any top al Qaeda leaders were captured — such as thinking through who would be assigned to conduct a particular interrogation. Its research may uncover techniques that aren’t coercive but also aren’t derived from the Army Field Manual.

“The Army Field Manual is very specific, and that’s good for 18-year-olds who need an operator’s manual in the field,” said one person familiar with the proposal. But for professional interrogators, “you want to have a spectrum of things, and to know what the borders are — what you can’t do.”

Congressional Democrats have several times tried to enact legislation that would require all interrogators to adhere to the Army Field Manual, and each effort ended in a partisan standoff. The Bush administration maintained that coercive methods, such as slamming a detainee against a wall, are critical tools for tough-to-crack suspects.

Techniques such as waterboarding, a type of simulated drowning that is widely considered to be torture, wouldn’t be considered by any new team.

Tom Parker, policy director for counterterrorism and human rights at Amnesty International USA, argues that the Field Manual itself should be amended to specifically prohibit techniques such as sexual humiliation by members of the opposite sex, forced use of enemas and forced shaving of Muslim detainees.

Some CIA veterans warn that the Obama administration shouldn’t limit itself to noncoercive interrogations because there is a middle ground of techniques between the Army Field Manual and torture. Techniques such as sleep deprivation and blasting loud music are considered coercive but not torture, said John Radsan, a former CIA lawyer and federal prosecutor.

“We have to figure out tactic by tactic: Would we allow some things that go beyond the criminal-justice system or the Army Field Manual?” he said.

Write to Siobhan Gorman at siobhan.gorman@wsj.com


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