FBI chief vows to protect terror detainees from rendition

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 16, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Signaling a shift in the U.S.'s handling of overseas interrogations, FBI director Robert Mueller reassured Democratic lawmakers Wednesday that his agents would never turn over detainees to the CIA for rendition, despite the bureau's heightened role in the questioning of terrorism detainees.

In creating a new interagency group that manages interrogations, the Obama administration has handed the FBI more control in the questioning of high-value detainees, a decision that's diminished the CIA's central role.

Mueller said the bureau was prepared to take the lead in the new High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group without turning over detainees to the CIA for transfer to foreign countries where they could face torture.

"Have not, will not," he said flatly.

Wednesday's assurance wasn't the first time the FBI has staked out a different path from the CIA on the matter of detainee interrogations. In 2002, the FBI became troubled by CIA questioning that some agents described as "borderline torture."

However, Mueller's testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee left unanswered questions about whether the CIA would have the ability to transfer detainees to foreign countries for questioning on its own, without the FBI's go-ahead.

When the administration announced the new group in August, officials said that it would better protect suspects from rendition. They wouldn't offer details on how it would do that, however, nor did they specify any countries that would be excluded from renditions.

The Obama administration could continue to rely, as previous administrations have, on other countries' assurances that they won't torture detainees.

One intelligence official said the FBI ordinarily wouldn't be involved in deciding to turn over detainees to the agency anyway.

"The FBI picks up people for law enforcement purposes, including extradition," the official said. "There would be no need, now or in the past, for the bureau to turn over individuals to the CIA."

The intelligence official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, added that "the CIA got what it wanted from this initiative — a place at the table for its substantive experts — while avoiding what it didn't want: responsibility for holding people."

"The agency will still play a major role in debriefings, but it's glad to be out of the detention business," the official said.

On Wednesday, Mueller emphasized the bureau's tradition of "negotiation interrogation," which relies on "building rapport" with detainees.

"It is one way to go," he said. "We believe we are successful at it."

A Justice Department inspector general's report last year described how FBI agents became deeply troubled by interrogations they'd witnessed and frequently clashed with their military counterparts over the military's and CIA's use of harsh techniques. In 2002, the FBI decided that it wouldn't participate in joint interrogations with other agencies when techniques violated its policies.

Republicans questioned whether the FBI's new role would conflict with its traditional emphasis on crime fighting.

Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah asked Mueller how the FBI could participate in interrogations without giving every detainee a Miranda warning.

If a detainee weren't given a warning, Hatch asked, wouldn't federal judges be required to throw out detainee confessions?

"It creates quite a bit of pressure to give Miranda warnings on many, many, many cases if the presumption is those cases are going to be tried in federal court," Hatch said. "This is going to reduce the amount of intelligence obtained on the battlefield."

In practice, Mueller said, Miranda warnings would be required only on rare occasions. He said interrogators had the ability to decide whether indicted detainees should be questioned primarily for intelligence purposes and not prosecuted.

"At least it ought to be put on the table as to whether or not you wish to Mirandize that individual before you talk to him," Mueller said, "but that does not necessarily exclude that the person will be interviewed for intelligence purposes."

Despite the CIA's lower-profile role in interrogations, Mueller maintained that the FBI would be working jointly with the agency.

"We are putting it together," he said of the interagency group, "but I will tell you it's going to be, I hope, FBI leadership with CIA as the deputy."

(Warren P. Strobel contributed to this article.)

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