Obama creates new agency to oversee terrorist interrogations

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 24, 2009 

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration, moving to break with Bush-era interrogation policies, announced Monday that it would create a new interagency group to manage the questioning and transfers of terrorist detainees.

Many of the details, however, were unknown, and it was unclear how significantly the new approach will differ from previous practices.

The new group, recommended by a task force and approved by President Barack Obama, is intended to correct some of the abuses that took place under the Bush administration's program and to allow less of an ad hoc approach.

"There is no tension between strengthening our national security and meeting our commitment to the rule of law, and these new policies will accomplish both," said Attorney General Eric Holder in a statement.

The new High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group would be housed within the FBI, whose agents were among the most vocal opponents of harsh interrogation techniques during the Bush years, and would be overseen by the National Security Council inside the White House.

Its members haven't yet been named. They'd include mobile teams of interrogators, analysts and linguists tasked foremost with preventing future attacks and secondarily with gathering evidence for criminal prosecutions of terrorism suspects.

Interrogators will operate under the guidelines spelled out in the Army Field Manual, which bans the use of techniques such as sleep deprivation and waterboarding that were hallmarks of Bush-era policies. However, the group also will examine scientific research and recommending whether the interrogation methods should be expanded or adjusted.

It wasn't immediately clear whether any changes in interrogation methods would be announced publicly.

Senior administration officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the matter's sensitivity, said the new regimen will better protect future detainees from torture if they're sent to other countries for interrogation, a process known as rendition.

They didn't, however, offer details on how the new process would better protect suspects. Nor did they specify any individual countries that would be excluded from future renditions.

The administration could continue to rely, as have prior administrations, on other countries' assurances that they won't torture detainees. Several terrorism suspects who've been released have complained that they were sent to countries such as Syria and Egypt, where they were mistreated during questioning.

Separately, a release Monday from the Justice Department said Obama has accepted various classified recommendations to ensure proper treatment of detainees.

In a statement to employees, CIA Director Leon Panetta defended his agency's conduct and said he would "stand up for those officers who did what their country asked and who followed the legal guidance they were given. That is the President's position, too."

Panetta said the CIA's interrogation and detention program "obtained intelligence from high-value detainees when inside information on al Qaida was in short supply."

He stopped short of endorsing the practices, however. "Whether this was the only way to obtain that information will remain a legitimate area of dispute, with Americans holding a range of views on the methods used," he said.

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