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Breaking News: White House to create new “team of elite interrogators” to deal with high value terror suspects

Deputy White House Pess Secretary Bill Burton, CBS Photo

Deputy White House Pess Secretary Bill Burton, CBS Photo

NPR is reporting today:

President Obama has approved the creation of a team of elite interrogators responsible for questioning top terrorism suspects, a White House spokesman confirmed Monday.

The unit will be stationed at the FBI headquarters in Washington and is not intended to take away all interrogation responsibilities from the CIA, deputy White House press secretary Bill Burton said.

The suggestion to create the unit came from a special interrogation task force the president pulled together days after he came into office.

The decision comes as the Justice Department prepared to disclose a 2004 CIA inspector general’s report looking into alleged abuses during CIA-run interrogations of top al-Qaida suspects.

Since January, the task force has been trying to sift fact from fiction when it comes to interrogation. The CIA claims harsh techniques like waterboarding are a necessary evil when questioning hardened al-Qaida operatives.

The Obama administration has already said those kinds of tactics are off the table. So over the past eight months the task force has had to look to history, science, and advances in psychology to find the right mix that will make U.S. interrogators nothing less than the best in the world.

Under the new rules, interrogators have to follow the guidelines laid out by the Army Field Manual when questioning suspects. The task force concluded that the manual is the appropriate place to start when interrogating key terrorism suspects.

According to officials familiar with the plan, the elite team would be drawn from the FBI, the CIA and the Defense Department. While the FBI would run the unit, the National Security Council in the White House would oversee it.

Officials had considered leaving oversight of the interrogators to the deputy attorney general, but White House officials said they needed a more active role.

Former military interrogator Matthew Alexander says it makes sense for the FBI to take the lead.

“Al-Qaida has more in common with a criminal gang or criminal organization than it does with rank-and-file soldiers,” he said. “So the methods that are very effective are the ones that police detectives and criminal investigators use all the time and the FBI is particularly well suited to conduct those interrogations because they do criminal investigations and they do criminal interrogations.”

Alexander speaks from experience. He was in charge of a handpicked interrogation team that worked on one of the most important counter-terrorism operations of the war: the hunt for Abu Masab al-Zarqawi, the man in charge of al-Qaida in Iraq.

The military had been looking for him for three years. It took Alexander’s team just two months to get detainees to reveal the location of Zarqawi’s safe house. They used the same kind of techniques the elite unit will be asked to use.

But the Army Field Manual will only be a starting point. The task force will ask members of the new interrogation team to put their heads together and come up with other strategies. Outside interrogators say the Army manual is woefully out of date.

“The doctrine that we have established for interrogation has never been subjected to any sort of rigorous or objective scrutiny as to its efficacy,” says Col. Steven Kleinman, one of this country’s foremost authorities on interrogation.

Kleinman did not serve on the task force. But he says the task force’s decision to try to look at interrogation scientifically is an indication that they know the Army Field Manual is out of date.

“Specifically, talking about the Army Field Manual, it does not benefit from incredible new understanding in human behavior, social psychology, psychology of persuasion that has emerged from researchers in the last several decades,” he says.

The plot thickens. If done correctly, this could be a very positive development. I do hope that traditional law enforcement agencies take the lead in this effort.

(HT: Georgetown University’s Institute for International Law and Politics on Twitter)

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Anthony Clark Arend is Professor of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the Director of the Master of Science in Foreign Service in the Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Commentary and analysis at the intersection of international law and politics.