The Washington Independent
The Washington Independent

Interrogation Task Force Broadens Scope Beyond Techniques

Last updated: July 31, 2020 | July 20, 2009 | Pooja Bean
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President Barack Obama (WDCpix) President Barack Obama (WDCpix)

The task force advising the Obama administration on interrogating terrorism-related detainees is wrapping up its work this week, and although some of its final recommendations remain unfinished, officials familiar with its work indicate that it will focus less on specific interrogation techniques than on recommending interrogators develop their non-abusive strategies around known information about the specific detainees being questioned.

As first reported in June by The Washington Independent, the task force, chaired by J. Douglas Wilson of the Justice Department, is likely to recommend removing the CIA as the lead federal agency in charge of terrorism interrogations in favor of a mixed team of interrogation specialists from the FBI, the CIA and the military. A consensus has formed within the task force that creating such teams is the optimal path for eliciting vital information from the highest-value terrorism suspects without jeopardizing potential prosecutions of those detainees.

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

The task force, convened as part of a January executive order from President Obama ending the CIA’s so-called enhanced interrogation program, is supposed to recommend which non-coercive interrogation techniques ought to be employed. But a source familiar with the task force’s work cautioned that experienced interrogators on the task force believe that a narrow focus on the use of particular techniques missed the point of interrogation work.

“One of the major recommendations was an investment in research and the application of science to better the elicitation of information, more than [specific] techniques,” said one such official, who requested anonymity because the task force’s report has yet to be delivered to the White House. “As far as techniques go, it’s not about techniques, it’s more about the application” of interrogation plans built around the specific circumstances of a detainee.

The Wall Street Journal also quoted an official familiar with the task force’s work as saying that professional interrogators find the Army Field Manual on Interrogations, a mostly Geneva Conventions-compliant instruction manual for tactical military interrogations, as less relevant for their work with high-value targets. “That’s good for 18-year-olds who need an operator’s manual in the field,” the official told The Journal’s Siobhan Gorman, but “you want to have a spectrum of things, and to know what the borders are — what you can’t do.”

Nothing in the task force’s recommendations would approach “extreme physical or mental discomfort,” an official told TWI, as Obama’s executive order has banned any such approaches and revoked all Justice Department legal foundations for the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program, and there are “no signs those measures work.” The official added that within the bounds of the executive order’s torture ban, the task force’s discussion on interrogation approaches centered on “what works, what’s known to work, and not have an extreme price on it.”

While the executive order creating the task force mandated it to deliver its finished product by July 21, the Journal reported that the task force was unlikely to meet the deadline. The Washington Post reported that it was still likely to give its recommendations to the White House by week’s end. It is unclear why the task force might require an extension to its deadline.

TWI reported in June that the task force was favorably inclined to a proposal making the interrogation teams report jointly to the attorney general and the director of national intelligence when interrogating high-value terrorism detainees. The logic behind the proposal is to ensure that even when the purpose of an interrogation is to develop intelligence — such as information around a specific plot or about the structure of a terrorist organization — the interrogations do not preclude the Justice Department from seeking prosecutions of those detainees.

In a May speech at the National Archives, Obama lamented how the abuse of detainees in hidden CIA prisons and the Guantanamo Bay detention facility during the Bush administration may have jeopardized his Justice Department’s ability to convict some detainees in civilian courts. He has used that abuse as part of an argument to construct a system of preventive detention, possibly including captives off the battlefields of Afghanistan — something civil libertarians have fiercely resisted.

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