Elite terrorist interrogation team withers under Trump
In mid-September, a Syrian rebel brigade turned over to U.S. troops in Iraq a captured Islamic State fighter with an unusual background: He was an American.
The man posed a unique challenge for US officials. As a U.S. citizen with constitutional protections, any interrogation techniques judged to run afoul of U.S. law could make him impossible to prosecute in federal court.
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To many U.S. officials, it seemed like a perfect job for the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group (HIG) — an interagency team formed by the Obama administration after a wrenching national debate over Bush-era torture practices and charged with developing humane interrogation methods based on academic research.
But the Trump administration never deployed the elite team to question the American captured in Syria, according to two sources with knowledge of the group’s deployments. The group’s exclusion rattled those who work for it, who fear its days could be numbered under a president who has openly endorsed the torture of terror suspects. In the last week alone, two members of the group’s critical research arm announced their departure, and warned colleagues the organization was in danger.
“We run the risk of losing this innovative and important instrument of national power,” said Bobby Chesney, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who has advised the U.S. government on detainee policy. “It’s such an obviously good idea. But it also treads on the turf of several agencies. What’s likely to happen if it doesn’t have strong institutional support? It will lose budget and personnel, and no one will push back.”
Sources involved or familiar with the organization who spoke to POLITICO warned that its absence in the case of the American captured in Syria is just the latest sign, dating back to the late Obama era, that the HIG has struggled to win support throughout the turf-conscious U.S. law enforcement and intelligence establishments.
Their anxiety is compounded by the fact that, more than a decade after the end of the CIA’s torture program, the U.S. lacks a coherent strategy on how to deal with terror suspects. For an impassioned anti-torture cadre of human rights advocates, interrogators and legal professionals, the HIG’s potential sidelining is a step towards the return of torture in the U.S.
“The question that I have and others have… is it a viable entity under the Trump administration?” one official involved with the group asked. “Does anybody care anymore about the HIG?”
Obama response to torture outcry
The fading of the HIG has not been an implosion so much as a slow plod into obscurity. Accounts from half a dozen sources who have worked for the group describe a classic Washington tale of good intentions that came up short: a solid idea that paid political dividends to its champions, but in execution, brought out the worst of DC’s national security bureaucracy. For many, the HIG’s exclusion from the interrogation of an American ISIS captive signals the start of its swan song, after years of neglect.
The High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group was formed in 2009, several months into President Barack Obama’s first term as he moved to overhaul U.S. interrogation and detention policies in the aftermath of the Bush-era CIA torture program.
The HIG was given a dual mission: Its operational side — staffed with CIA, DIA and FBI personnel who include linguists and cultural experts — can be dispatched quickly around the world to interrogate high-profile detainees. Its separate research arm conducts the first federally-funded large-scale scientific research into interrogation techniques in decades, supplying the operational side with state-of-the-art strategies to gather intelligence from suspects.
One thing the HIG does not do is torture, which is illegal under US and international law. It uses strictly non-coercive interrogation strategies and focuses on rapport-building with terror suspects. The group’s legal boundaries go even beyond the Army Field Manual, the government-wide guidelines on interrogation.
The HIG was built as salve for a national security apparatus that was reeling from the CIA’s torture program. The group is housed not at the spy agency but at the FBI, and reports to the National Security Council. It does draw detailees from the CIA, as well as the FBI and Defense Intelligence Agency, but is led by an FBI-appointed director who is supported by deputies from the other two agencies.
Since its creation, the HIG has been deployed dozens of times — including to question Boston marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Umm Sayaff, the captured wife of an ISIS leader killed by US commandos in 2015. Its research has been featured in symposiums and used to educate local law enforcement agencies throughout the country.
“[The HIG] does the research to figure out what the best practices are, those get translated into training, the training gets used in the field, the field experience is used in the next round of research,” said Scott Roehm, director for the Washington office of the Center for Victims of Torture and who helps advise the HIG’s research committee. “And I would think that cycle is extremely valuable to the government. It ought to be producing better and better and better interrogators.”
But recent years have seen the HIG struggle to find a voice in the country’s national conversation on counterterrorism. It has been sidelined by the same FBI, CIA and DIA officials who are supposed to be its stewards, U.S. officials said.
The HIG cannot be deployed unless the CIA, FBI and DIA all agree to its dispatch, which often means sidelining each respective agencies’ own internal interrogation personnel. By sending the HIG, the DIA takes primary control of a terror suspect away from military interrogators, as does the FBI with field agents.
In the case of the American ISIS captive, he continues to be held in military custody in Iraq. According to news reports, he has been interrogated for intelligence purposes and by law enforcement. He has requested a lawyer, but has not yet been given one — the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a habeas suit on his behalf, which was first heard in U.S. courts Thursday morning.
“The CIA’s not invested in [the HIG]. DIA has sent people over there who have no interrogation experience,” a second U.S. official who works with the HIG said.