Obama Task Force on Torture Considers CIA-FBI Interrogation Teams

Wednesday, June 24, 2009 at 6:00 am
Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

The task force charged with fleshing out President Obama’s ban on torture in interrogations is likely to recommend the creation of small, mixed-agency teams for interviewing the most important terrorist targets. Representing an implicit demotion of the CIA, which currently has responsibility for interrogating high-level terrorists, the teams would report jointly to the attorney general and the director of national intelligence, according to officials familiar with the proposal.

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

The teams are the brainchild of three members of the Intelligence Science Board, a panel that reports to the director of national intelligence: forensic psychologist Robert Fein, former Deputy Attorney General Philip Heymann and former CIA official John MacGaffin. About five years ago, the three security experts began researching the available social science literature concerning interrogations in a variety of nations, including the United States, France, the United Kingdom and Japan, in order to inform a humane and effective interrogation regimen. A two-volume report the panel produced — the first phase was released in December 2006; the second, completed last month, is still classified — both repudiated torture and attributed interrogation-related abuses in part to a “shortfall in advanced, research-based interrogation methods at a time of intense pressure from operational commanders to produce actionable intelligence from high-value targets,” Fein wrote in the first volume, ‘Educing Information,’ which The Washington Independent reported on last year.

Last month, J. Douglas Wilson, the Justice Department official who leads the Obama administration’s Special Task Force on Interrogation and Transfer Policies — a panel created by President Obama’s January 22 executive order banning torture — invited the Intelligence Science Board members to Washington to brief the task force on their recommendations. In an oral presentation and a five-page summary of hundreds of pages of work, Heymann said, he and his colleagues recommended the creation of “an organizational structure that could draw” on the experience of a small corps of the best interrogators currently working for the government who “could produce what would very likely be the best non-coercive interrogation or interviewing capacity in the world.” That corps would serve as the first wave of interrogators under the new structure while preparing a syllabus on proper interrogation guidelines for new recruits to the teams.

“The group would be mobile, and go where it needed to go,” said Heymann, now a Harvard law professor, envisioning teams of three to five interrogators at a time who would “only deal with major interviews and major occasions to get information from a terror suspect” of the order of Abu Zubaydah or Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, two of the most senior al-Qaeda captives held by the CIA and later the Defense Department. While emphasizing that the task force might not adopt every detail of his proposal and that modifications were likely, Heymann said that the teams would “report both to the Justice Department and to the intelligence world,” a move intended to ensure that interrogations do not compromise prosecutions of detainees, a significant departure from the Bush administration.

The task force — officially chaired by Attorney General Eric Holder and co-vice-chaired by Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates — has embraced the proposal, according to an official familiar with its work. “It’s highly thought out and sophisticated,” the official said. “This is going to be part of the draft recommendations. It may or may not make the final cut, but I’d be very surprised if it did not.” The task force is scheduled to deliver its recommendations to the White House by July 21. Spokespeople for Holder and Blair declined to comment on the task force’s recommendations while its work was ongoing.

Heymann said that interrogators from across the military, CIA, and FBI, would be charged with creating a “syllabus” of best interrogation practices that fall within the boundaries of the U.S. Army Field Manual on Interrogations, which complies with the Geneva Conventions. Heymann said that the social science research supporting the Intelligence Science Board’s work ruled out all forms of physical and psychological torture as methods for soliciting information. “What I mean by ‘non-coercive’ is in line with what our major allies do — Britain, France, other European nations — and not out of line with what’s accepted by western nations,” Heymann said. “We would not do anything to other people that we would complain about if done to Americans abroad in other circumstances, we wouldn’t do something we wouldn’t do to an American in the U.S., and we would be pretty well in line with the views of our major allies,” a perspective adopted in order to ensure robust intelligence cooperation with U.S. allies concerned about torture can continue.

Additionally, the Intelligence Science Board recommended that ahead of the deployment of the interrogation teams, senior administration officials should decide whether or not the substance of the interrogation ought to be used as evidence for a criminal prosecution. “There would have to be an early decision, presumably made in Washington by people with a high level of responsibility, as to whether to take whatever steps necessary to ensure any statements could be used at a trial, or to go ahead and get as much information as possible, without worrying about convicting on that basis,” Heymann said. The decision would impact whether to immediately provide a detainee with a lawyer in preparation of seeking a conviction or whether to proceed with an interrogation in order to collect intelligence about a broad picture of a terrorist organization or specific plot.

“That doesn’t mean we torture them,” Heymann said. “It means to forget about offering a lawyer, if that’s required, even though that means we would not use any statement at trial.” Acquiring information intended for use when trying a detainee would have to meet standards for admissibility in criminal court. “If you want to admit it in American court, it’s going to have to be noncoercive and perhaps comply with the Miranda rules,” Heymann said.

According to the official familiar with the task force’s work, who requested anonymity because the draft has not been finalized, the interrogation teams would “draw on the best and the brightest from the FBI, [Department of Justice], [Department of Defense] and other parts of the intelligence and law enforcement community,” and there were “some discussions” among task force members about whether “it would make the most sense for the FBI to take the lead,” given the FBI’s 100-year history with interrogating criminal suspects. Some task force members want the “FBI to lead but not dominate.” The official added that the CIA’s role in interrogations remained to be determined at this point in the task force’s work.

A U.S. intelligence official who requested anonymity insisted that “[the Defense Department] and CIA will continue to play a role in questioning suspected terrorists overseas.”

But the official familiar with the work of the task force said a benefit of the proposal to create the new interrogations corps is that it would use the Field Manual as a “left and right guideline” for the interrogators to plan their interrogations, rather than a manual spelling out precisely what techniques would be employed in every situation. Interrogators rarely think in terms of specific techniques, the official said, preferring to focus on how to craft an interview regimen that best exploits the leverage interrogators have on detainees.

Heymann agreed, citing the research his team has conducted for the past five years. “If we captured a major terrorist, we would bring quickly to bear what’s known about him, his organization and its possible plans, so that the interview or interrogation could be done with all the advantages of superior knowledge, which are big advantages,” he said.

Some Republican members of the Senate intelligence and armed services committees have expressed fear that the Army Field Manual on Interrogations could be turned into a manual for suspected terrorists to learn how to frustrate U.S. interrogators. During CIA Director Leon Panetta’s confirmation hearing, Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.), the vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, extracted an assurance from that Panetta would request the president approve techniques outside the Army Field Manual if he felt they were necessary to protect national security. But the official said a literal reliance on the methods outlined in the field manual were mostly useful as “a linear basis for newly initiated personnel,” rather than the interrogator corps envisioned in the Intelligence Science Board proposal.

Vicki Divoll, a former legal adviser to the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center and general counsel for the Senate intelligence committee, said that a hybrid interrogation corps made sense given the divergent missions of the law enforcement and intelligence communities. “CIA analysts and case officers know what we need from an intelligence perspective to fill in the gaps to learn the plans, intentions and capabilities of foreign terrorists who wish us harm. But CIA’s skill set has been to get the information through the art of persuasion, not the art of coercion,” Divoll said. “FBI, on the other hand, has historically not been good at seeking or identifying information of intelligence value. They can spot ‘evidence’ that, linearly, might lead to an arrest and prosecution, but are not as adept at collecting vague bits of information that might, someday, prove useful when linked with information gleaned from other sources and methods throughout the intelligence community. The FBI is experienced at using nonviolent but aggressive techniques, within the rule of law, to elicit information from individuals who are hostile and uncooperative.”

The official familiar with the task force’s work said that the draft report would seek to ensure that “the need for actionable information is mutually compatible with requirements for an eventual court case.” While internal debate continues — the official conceded that task force members were “maybe not 100 percent unanimous” on the question — the emerging consensus was the “need for information that disrupts future [terrorist] operations and provides actionable intelligence to decisionmakers” takes primacy, though many on the panel believe that eliciting actionable intelligence and evidence suitable for a prosecution was “mutually compatible.”

The torture of certain high-value detainees during the Bush administration has bequeathed to the Obama administration a situation in which officials fear prosecutions of detainees who continue to “endanger the American people” would be compromised by inadmissible evidence, a problem that Obama, in a recent speech, called “the toughest single issue that we will face” in interrogations and detentions. The administration’s answer is to keep those individuals in prolonged detention, promising merely to “have clear, defensible, and lawful standards for those who fall into this category.” A separate task force on detentions is at work determining what those standards will be.

“This is perhaps the biggest wound that the Bush administration has inflicted on the structure of how to do these things,” said Karen Greenberg, executive director of the Center on Law and Security at New York University. “This category — those we can’t try, and can’t let go — is a heinous category.” Unless the Obama administration builds concern for the final dispensation of future terrorist captives into its new interrogation and detention architecture and “the intelligence guys work with and collaborate with the law enforcement guys,” the number of detainees in that category “will proliferate rather than come to end with the closing of Guantanamo.”

Despite the prospective reduction in the CIA’s role in interrogations, Divoll anticipated that agency officers might welcome the task force’s proposal, since it would place the CIA in a role better suited to its traditional strengths of intelligence gathering and analysis. “Career CIA officers are unlikely to view a second chair seat to FBI in the coercive interrogation process as a demotion,” she said. “I expect they will welcome the vital roles of, first, guiding the substance of the questioning of a detained terrorist suspect in the necessary direction, and, second, using the fruits of the interrogation to its greatest advantage in their all-source intelligence analysis for policymakers.”

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Task force on interrogation: use FBI and CIA in teams « Later On
Pingback posted June 24, 2009 @ 1:43 pm

[...] am by LeisureGuy Maybe the CIA can actually learn how to do interrogations instead of just torture. Spencer Ackerman: The task force charged with fleshing out President Obama’s ban on torture in interrogations is [...]

Comment posted June 24, 2009 @ 6:37 pm

What happens when a mass murdering psychopath is brought to trial and the state has compromised the case by either omission or commission of some legal requirement, e.g. reading of Miranda rights, etc?

If the state can show that the problem did not compromise justice in any relevant way sometimes the prosecution will be allowed by the court to proceed. However, if this cannot be shown the murderer may have his/her case dismissed by the court. Regardless of the danger to society he/she will be freed!!!

Why is this different from some murdering terrorist who is brought before the court? Both are killers. Both are dangers to society. One may be worse than the other, and I am not sure that the terrorist is the worst, but as distasteful as it is both are entitled to Justice. Both are entitled to a fair trial.

What's the point of a Kangaroo court with gerrymandered rules of evidence stacked against the defendant, with rules of evidence altered to allow unacceptable evidence to be admitted?

If we are going to fix the system to generate a definite outcome why bother? Lets just bring the defendant before a tribunal, ask his name and sentence him to life without parole, and then take the heat from the ACLU and the world as a two faced hypocritical dictatorial nation and be done.

What's the point of a charade? What's the point of fig leaf justice? It just makes our appearance to the world and our actions worse. It does more damage to our (my) reputation as Americans.

The land of the free and the home of the brave, where all men are entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Where all men are subject to the rule of law. Where as a nation of law we follow not only our law, but that created by us and adopted in international conventions.

Where we as a nation and our leaders decry the brutality, torture and imprisonment of Iran's ruling clerics. Where we decry the “rebels” loss of their rights, freedoms, and justice.

And (shamefully) do it ourselves in our gulags around the world and in Guantanamo. We do it ourselves when we engage in creating “other justice systems” with “other justice/evidence rules.”

Come on America, we are better than that. Remember who has made and is making you afraid. Originally it was the terrorist, now it is the politicians that want us afraid so they can get or accommodate whatever political influence group that is paying them. Our politicians shamefully play on our unspecified fears to gain power when playing their selfish political games.

How did we arrive at a place where our politicians have gone from reassuring the country that we will prevail, to be afraid and if you don't do all these illegal things like torture you will be attacked and maybe killed? How did we as a people accept this change?

And then following this change agree to compromise our National Principles. How did we arrive at the place where we agree to kangaroo courts, kangaroo justice, torture, rendition, domestic spying, and all the other Constitutional and Bill of Rights abuses.

How did we arrive at a place where our President publicly (by saying he wants to look forward not backwards) declare that he will not follow the law of the Country? How did we arrive at a place where we as citizens are not shocked and outraged at such an obvious violation of the law?

How did we arrive at a place where the highest law enforcement officer in the country continually neglects to enforce the law by ignoring violations of ours and international laws on torture, and our obligations to investigate it?


Dick Hertz
Comment posted June 24, 2009 @ 7:48 pm

This is sad and pathetic BS designed to make it look like they have done something new, as if the abuses weren't willful, intentional and knowing violations of the law. I think half of it was that Cheney needed some snuff porn for his stash to fap to. I can't think of a current Republican who isn't some kind of perverted misanthropic monster and Cheney is their leader. Two bolts in his neck and he'd be throwing little girls in the river with the flowers.
It is past time to investigate, it is now time to add Obama to the list of perpetrators as Accessory After the Fact to War Crimes, Torture, Kidnapping, and Murder.

Comment posted June 25, 2009 @ 7:05 am

From the article… ““This is perhaps the biggest wound that the Bush administration has inflicted on the structure of how to do these things,” said Karen Greenberg, executive director of the Center on Law and Security at New York University.”

While this is indeed true… the medical and psychological professionals that were involved in acts of torture, as well as the professional organizations including the American Psychological Association (that has yet to make a strong public statement that prevents the involvement of psychologists in every capacity from engaging in torture… including enhanced interrogations) have done a grave disservice to both the public as well as the profession of psychology. In the minds of most people, psychologists have historically first and foremost been thought of members of the healing professions until their roll with torture and the involvement with the CIA has surfaced… with new information being brought to light on a daily basis. If those who are educated in psychology are going to continue in their relationship with the military and the CIA then perhaps they need to define themselves as social scientists as what they are engaging in has nothing whatsoever to do with the best interest of those with whom they are interacting. “Do no harm” should apply equally across all health care professionals!

As a licensed clinical psychologist myself… I am appalled by the actions of some of my colleagues and even more so by the American Psychological Association… of which I am not a member… nor will I consider being until they make that very strong public statement renouncing these sorts of professional relationships. Those of us who are dedicated to functioning as healers deserve to reclaim our titles and our reputations… and the public deserves to know that there is a distinction in our functions!

Furthermore, based on this…


Until Dr. Fein has a solid understanding of the following…



As well as a full understanding of the stress response, the relationship between the adrenal glands and brain functioning, the rolls of blood sugar and bilirubin in brain damage, and the roll of high potassium levels on heart failure… he has no business functioning in that capacity! Neglect can be just as LETHAL as abuse!

Dr Julien Arbor
Comment posted June 25, 2009 @ 7:22 am

It's also too damn bad that more women haven't been involved in leadership and decision making positions within science, government, education, the military and the health care system. Had they been… much of the information regarding my previous comment as well as additional key elements would have most likely already been known!

Comment posted June 26, 2009 @ 12:42 am

to view a partial list of crimes committed by FBI agents over 1500 pages long see

to view a partial list of FBI agents arrested for pedophilia see

Comment posted June 26, 2009 @ 3:45 am

Did BinLaden and company already win?
We have abandoned basic human rights. Whose fault is that ?
How can anyone justify such despicable acts ? for any reason.

We used to be the good guys, freeing people from conditions such as these.
What have we become ?

Comment posted June 29, 2009 @ 7:02 pm

It would help if Obama and our Dem Congress would push prosecution of Bush's Torture Conspirators.

No effort like this will be a solution if there is not prosecution.
Prosecution is the only real deterrent.

to Prosecute Bush's Torturers


God bless


Obama Task Force on Torture Considers CIA-FBI Interrogation Teams « The Lift – Legal Issues in the Fight against Terrorism
Pingback posted June 30, 2009 @ 1:36 pm

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