What to do with High Value Detainees in Overseas Contingency Operations?

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Officials suspect Umm Sayyaf had a role in the capture of American citizen Kayla Mueller

Daily Beast:

Umm Sayyaf, who is an Iraqi citizen, was captured by U.S. forces in Syria. She was interrogated in Iraq by an American unit that operates outside the traditional criminal justice system. But the decision on where to try her was based largely in deference to Iraqi law. And she will now be turned over not to the government of Iraq in Baghdad, but Iraq’s Kurdish regional government in Erbil, which is expected to “throw the book” at her, and perhaps do much more than that.

But President Obama banned torture, make no mistake about it. Oh yes, and also “enhanced” interrogation practices.

This “special unit” is the High Value Detainee Interrogation Group that has replaced the CIA’s Rendition, Detention, and Interrogation Program.

This is worth snarfing your morning coffee:

Senior administration officials said it was too early to say whether the scientific research program would yield new techniques to be used in interrogations. One official emphasized the program’s goal was not only to identify new methods but to stay abreast of ways of enhancing existing ones.

Since its inception, has the HIG been effective?

WASHINGTON — When President Barack Obama took office, he promised to overhaul the nation’s process for interrogating terror suspects. His solution: the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group, or HIG, a small interagency outfit that would use non-coercive methods and the latest psychological research to interrogate America’s most-wanted terrorists — all behind a veil of secrecy.

Today, the HIG often gets the first jab at America’s most-wanted terror suspects. Since its creation in August 2009, HIG teams have questioned a bevy of top detainees, including Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad, Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Umm Sayyaf, the wife of a high-profile Islamic State leader killed in a drone strike.

But six years on, the Obama administration’s elite interrogation force is on shaky ground. U.S. officials and outside critics question the effectiveness of its interrogators, whether they’re following their own training, and whether they can continue to rely on psychological research to help break suspects. Congress and the White House, which once saw the group as a key to reinventing the nation’s counterterrorism strategy, aren’t paying attention. And those struggles illuminate a broader reality: Obama’s limited reforms to how American detains, interrogates and prosecutes suspected terrorists are ad-hoc and fragile. His successor could scrap most of them — the HIG included — with the stroke of a pen.

And of course under the auspices of the “most transparent administration in history”:

Many of the details of the HIG’s work remain secret. The group’s charter, authored by the National Security Council, remains classified. Neither the Director of National Intelligence, the National Security Council nor the FBI would say how many people work at the HIG, how many operational MITs it houses, how big its budget is, how many times it has been dispatched, where it interrogates people — or even whether any of that information is classified. (“Elements” of the HIG were deployed 14 times between its inception in 2009 and early 2012, former FBI Director Robert Mueller, who declined to be interviewed for this story, told Congress that March.) How interrogators join the HIG “is kind of a mystery,” too, one former U.S. government official familiar with the group said. (The official, along with others HuffPost talked to, requested anonymity, citing the group’s sensitive operations.)

Unfortunately for our national security interests, the CIA RDI Program, black sites, waterboarding, etc. all became public knowledge; and a source of much hyperventilating and hyperbole.

“The mission of the High Value Detainee Interrogation Group (HIG) is to deploy the nation’s best available interrogation resources against terrorism subjects identified as having access to information with the greatest potential to prevent terrorist attacks against the United States and its allies,” the FBI told HuffPost in a statement. “Although national security sensitivities limit our ability to publicly discuss operational matters, all HIG interviews are lawfully conducted in strict compliance with U.S. domestic law and international legal obligations. The HIG is subject to interagency legal oversight, as well as oversight by appropriate congressional committees.”

Wow. That bit of PR could just as well have described the Bush-era Justice Department-approved CIA program. They had legal cover through the OLC. There were multiple legal opinions that reinforced the original judgment. And the CIA had extensively lawyered up before agreeing to move forward with the program.

But perhaps the biggest mystery surrounding the HIG is whether its interrogators are any good.

Some former and current officials say the HIG’s interrogators are all highly trained counterterrorism officers, and that experienced interrogators covet spots on the force. Indeed, many say the group’s dispatches frequently yield valuable intelligence. In several cases, the group collected information without marring the prosecution of the captured terror suspects; several of the group’s detainees were eventually prosecuted and put away.

Other sources, however, told HuffPost that HIG staffers aren’t always the expert, elite interrogators Obama envisioned. Certain intelligence shops would prefer to keep their top interrogators to themselves, these sources argue, which means the HIG gets whoever’s left. U.S. intelligence agencies sometimes interrogate the same detainees the HIG questions — and claim better results. Military officials have told reporters that Umm Sayyaf, one of the people the HIG interrogated, provided invaluable information on ISIS before being turned over to Iraqi Kurdish authorities. But “the HIG hardly got anything out of her,” a second U.S. official told HuffPost. “It was all [non-HIG Defense Department interrogators].”

A third U.S. official familiar with the HIG recalled an instance when, during a training exercise, one of the recruits based his assessment of a detainee on a self-described “gut instinct.”

Afterward, the official asked the recruit what his background was.

“He said prior to joining DIA, he was an infantryman,” the official recalled. “He had never been an interrogator, never had experience as an interrogator.”

Several sources told similar stories about HIG recruits.

“They may or may not have some experience when they arrive at that assignment,” a fourth official said.

But after a week of interrogation training, they’ll be eligible to join the Obama administration’s A-Team.

Anything here sound similar? Remember the criticism leveled at James Mitchell that he did not have any experience in the field of interrogation? Or expertise in al Qaeda?

Listening to James Mitchell himself I think repudiates his critics.

Even though this sounds tainted with pc-nonsense, I agree with much of it:

Sources familiar with the HIG training course say it focuses on the latest psychological research on non-coercive interrogation methods. Trainers warn interrogators to recognize the limits of intimidation and emphasize that coercive questioning can yield false intelligence — a problem that plagued the CIA’s torture program, according to the Senate torture report.

Trainers teach HIG recruits about suspects’ cultures and encourage them to to be mindful of cultural gaps and build rapport. Trainees learn to strip away stereotypes associated with “terrorists” or “insurgents.” In one training exercise, they are told to think of themselves as extremists.

The course also reminds trainees that no matter how nice they are, they might not be able to escape the lingering stench of the CIA’s torture program. Interrogators are told that they can’t apologize on behalf of the U.S. government. If you don’t interrogate ethically and morally, the course teaches, the next person doesn’t stand a chance.

What I disagree with is the notion that the HGI’s predecessor didn’t operate upon ethical and moral guidelines.

I have mixed feelings on this:

The HIG’s rules are designed to allow it to gather intelligence without tainting the judicial process. Guantanamo Bay, where terror suspects have been stuck in legal limbo for more than a decade, shows how difficult it is to prosecute terror suspects whose confessions were obtained under questionable circumstances, such as torture.

Of course it is preferable to obtain evidence through means that are usable in a prosecution; but if it’s a question of gathering information for the sake of legal prosecution versus gathering actionable intelligence for the sake of saving lives and disrupting future plots, well……you tell me.

But despite its focus on rapport-building tactics, no government interrogator is required to follow the HIG training manual.

I’m reminded of Marc Thiessen pointing out how Ali Soufan- the sainted expert and media darling on writing the media narrative on interrogations- had engaged on coercive techniques himself.

Legally, the HIG’s interrogators are bound by the Army Field Manual, a document that allows a broader range of interview techniques than those suggested in the group’s own training. The Army Field Manual’s appendix has long set off alarm bells among professional interrogators, who have said its carefully worded descriptions of interrogation techniques just barely toe the line between humane treatment and torture.

Human rights groups who are not politically loyal but are ideologically driven have been consistent in this regard, pointing out how there are techniques approved of in the Army FM that are coercive, can constitute torture, and immoral. Some of the same techniques approved of in the Bush-era EITs are also legitimized by the Army FM. Marc Thiessen had also pointed this out in his book, Courting Disaster:

The Army Field Manual allows extended solitary confinement as long as interrogators talk to their bosses first. The manual allows interrogators to scare detainees, but not so much that the use of fear could be considered coercion, and it warns interrogators to be judicious with the use of threats, and to tear down a detainee’s ego — but not so much that it qualifies as humiliation. The document even allows sleep deprivation, requiring interrogators to give detainees just four hours of sleep for every 24-hour period. “One of the things people would do … [is give someone] four hours of sleep, then a 20-hour interrogation, then another 20-hour interrogation, then four hours of sleep,” said Tony Camerino, a former special operations interrogator.

This sounds familiar:

“The line is so fine, and it’s so hard to walk, and you put that in the hands of very young interrogators, and then in a very high-pressure environment … you can see how it becomes very easy for them to step over the lines,” Camerino said.

Critics of the CIA program (like Ali Soufan) also accused the CIA OF using inexperienced interrogators. In instances where a CIA interrogator had crossed a line, it was reported and reprimanded. And lessons were learned from the early days when the RDI Program first formed.

It’s unclear whether the HIG is following its own training manual or the more permissive Army document. Interrogations by HIG teams are sometimes videotaped.

Uh oh….better be careful on that one.

But research committee members — some of whom help run the HIG training course — can’t watch interrogations and are not permitted to watch HIG interrogation videos, several sources familiar with the group said. DNI, FBI, the White House and the HIG’s congressional overseers all refused to say who has access to the group’s interrogation tapes.

I wonder if there would be more media stink and scrutiny raised were this all being reported under the previous administration’s watch.

And this is just rich:

Congress and the White House have expressed little interest in whether the HIG’s interrogators are qualified and whether their training is effective. Despite its fledgling status, and nearly a decade of international outrage over the CIA’s now-defunct torture program, no one in Washington seems particularly concerned with monitoring the new guard’s activities.

“I don’t think there actually is any” oversight, the fourth official said. “None that I know of.”

Intelligence that comes out of the HIG is shared with Congress. But no one seems sure whose job it is to keep an eye on the group’s actual interrogations — and several of the administration’s intelligence agencies either didn’t know or refused to comment.

Remember that Pelosi and Rockefeller and other Democrats who sat on the oversight committee and who received briefings on the CIA EIT Program never raised an eyebrow- and even questioned if the CIA weren’t doing enough- until after it became a media torches and pitchforks hyperventilating scare and political attack against the administration in power.

several committee members — including vice-chair Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who has made interrogation a signature issue — said they aren’t often kept in the loop. The committee only gets briefings on the HIG when it specifically asks for them, one member said.

“There’s just so many things to look at,” Feinstein said. “We’re generally told [about a deployment] in a report. But we haven’t had any hearings.”

The HIG’s founding documents say policy guidance and oversight would be coordinated through the White House’s National Security Council.

“We certainly have broad oversight, but we’re not involved in tactical decisions,” an Obama administration official said. The National Security Council referred HuffPost to the FBI for comment.

“Every time there is a deployment, they do go and brief the Hill,” the first U.S. official said. “It’s usually [House and Senate Intelligence committees].”

Asked whether she’s comfortable with how the group operates, Feinstein said she isn’t worried — yet.

“I have heard nothing to the contrary,” she said. “When I hear the first thing, I won’t be comfortable.”

All this faux outrage and Feinstein’s partisan torture report has made protecting America that much more difficult.

Even the HIG’s core premise — using psychological, rapport-based techniques, instead of coercion — is in jeopardy. The American Psychological Association, after damning revelations that the organization aided the Bush-era torture program, voted this month to ban member psychologists from working on national security investigations.

Here’s their independent review. Moral idiots and cowards caving in to the narrative drawn up by Feinstein and Code Pink who have successfully defined the mainstream narrative and belief about the CIA and military detention and interrogation practices under Bush.

That decision could make it harder for mental health professionals to advise or join the HIG. And many members of Congress, including intelligence committee chair Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), as well as several Republican presidential candidates, still think torture is an acceptable method of interrogation. If they get their way, the HIG could be doomed.

Well of course that last sentence would come out….I am reading from HuffPo, after all. 😉

Going back to the recent developments with Umm Sayyaf,

Umm Sayyaf was interrogated by a special U.S. team outside the traditional legal protections afforded to people held inside the United States. While much of the information her questioners obtained was exceptionally valuable for intelligence purposes, and, Defense officials said, pointed to Mueller having been raped by the top ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the information might not be admissible as evidence in a U.S. criminal trial.

By contrast, officials said that the Kurds will charge Umm Sayyaf with crimes committed against Iraqis and likely dispense with her case much more quickly than would the American legal system.

So much of the same moral quandary that Bush-era detention and interrogations practices encountered go on today.

Bagram was the new Guantanamo when Bush critics weren’t paying attention to Obama’s head fake; and now will it be Erbil?

U.S. officials concede that Erbil could become a future destination for ISIS detainees, but said they don’t know because Umm Sayyaf is the first detainee to be sent there by the United States.

“It stands to reason that it could evolve that way,” one defense official explained.

I leave you with an interview with Mike Morrell:

Bottomline money quote from his book, The Great War of Our Time, pg 265:

The report is not the history of the program the Senator Feinstein has said it is; it is one of the worst pieces of analysis that this thirty-three-year veteran of analysis at CIA has ever seen

4 Responses to “What to do with High Value Detainees in Overseas Contingency Operations?”

  1. 1

    Nanny G

    That hazy wording along with that lack of oversight seems to me to be nothing more than a way Obama hoped to end the whole thing (after some overstep).

    Just as Obama let guns run into Mexican gang lord’s hands in hopes of tricking America into stricter gun control here, I think Obama wanted to end all interrogations, thus these poorly phrased directives, probie interrogators and scant supervision.

    I bet he’s steaming that neither of his plans ever worked.
    Most of the time Obama just orders the killings of suspected heads of terrorist organizations.
    I wonder whose side he’s on?
    Had that ”head” of a terrorist org had a falling out with Obama’s Muslim Brotherhood overlords or something?

  2. 2


    Torture is wrong. It is immoral Torture also is NOT an effective tool of intelligence, if it was The Gestapo would have wiped out all resistance in their occupied countries, Torture IS great for obtaining confessions. The Khymer Rouge LOVED that waterboarding !! One of the very few people known to have survived their torture said that he had confessed to : working for the CIA. working for the KGB AND was also a Catholic Bishop.
    If waterboarding was so effective why did KSM have to undergo it 83 times?
    People will say anything to stop the pain.
    People who torture should be punished. @Nanny G:

  3. 4




    Torture is wrong. It is immoral Torture also is NOT an effective tool of intelligence,

    I agree. Guess who else is in agreement with you? Bush. Cheney. Rummy.

    Torture IS great for obtaining confessions.

    What does this have to do with the CIA RDI Program? They weren’t engaging in “torture”. Nor was their objective to obtain “confessions”.

    Nor do you seem to understand the purpose of EITs and how they were applied.

    Do you ever bother to read anything before commenting? I ask, because this is the old “John Ryan” that I used to see lazily “weighing in” with nothing beyond your generic liberal talking point which does nothing to further the conversation on the topic.

    The Khymer Rouge LOVED that waterboarding !!

    What does this have to do with the CIA? It’s like saying “The Khmer Rouge loves guns.


    If waterboarding was so effective why did KSM have to undergo it 83 times?

    If waterboarding was so torturous, how is it that KSM withstood it 83 times?

    C’mon, John! At least act like you’ve read your talking points rebutted before. This is so 2009! KSM was not waterboarded 83 times. Nor was Zubaydah 183 times.

    Let me see if you’ve actually been paying attention and bothering to read the research I’ve done for your lazy ass. Quiz time, John:

    1. By KSM’s own admission, how many times was he waterboarded?

    2. What does the number actually refer to?

    I’m wainting; but I won’t hold my breath.

    People will say anything to stop the pain.

    Strawman or non-sequitur?

    Add it to your quiz:

    3. What is the purpose of EITs within the CIA program?

    People who torture should be punished.

    As far as I know, Curt won’t ban you because you entertain him like shooting fish in a barrel for his other FA readers.

    4. So why after so many investigations- including DOJ under Eric Holder- has no one been punished? Do you believe that if anything were prosecutable, he would not have seized upon it to make liberals like yourself tickled pink?

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