WASHINGTON — As the U.S. expands its campaign against ISIS, it has no plans to detain captured fighters in the long-term and also lacks a strategy on how to interrogate prisoners for potential intelligence, U.S. officials told BuzzFeed News.
“The United States does not intend to engage in the long-term detention of ISIL detainees,” a senior administration official told BuzzFeed, using the administration’s preferred acronym for ISIS. “Nor will we send any such detainees to the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.”
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because “it’s not the [White House’s] place to be speaking to such tactical issues,” said captured fighters would most likely be handed over to “Iraqi authorities and, as appropriate, other partners to arrange for appropriate disposition options.” U.S. forces have also handed ISIS captives over to Kurdish forces.
From its early days in office, the Obama administration sought to clearly break from the Bush-era detention and interrogation of al-Qaeda prisoners, which included torture and indefinite detention at the controversial Guantanamo Bay detention facility. But as the White House has embarked on its own detention and interrogation effort with ISIS, its policy has proven to be largely ad-hoc.
“There is no clear [detention and interrogation] policy,” one U.S. official said, requesting anonymity as they were not cleared to speak on the issue publicly. “I can’t even tell you how big of a mess it is.”
Sometimes, the military takes the lead in interrogations of captured terror suspects. Other times, an elite, FBI-led team of interrogators, known as the High-Value Detainee interrogation group, or HIG, steps in. Sometimes, the official said, the HIG is asked to show up and they decline, and other times, the group has wanted to deploy but any one of the various agencies — FBI, CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency — responsible for signing off on their deployments has said no. In one instance, the U.S. official recalled, the CIA raised objections, saying it would rather leave a foreign government in charge of the interrogation than deploy a U.S. team.
“The more I found out, it just got more confusing and more confusing,” the official said.
In its early attempt to reform the country’s detention and interrogation strategy, the Obama White House established the HIG, this special group of elite interrogators designed to dispatch and interrogate high-value captures. In theory, the group was intended to meld intelligence collection and law enforcement efforts — its purpose was to interrogate suspects while still preserving the ability to prosecute those suspects in federal court. But, according to the second U.S. official, the HIG isn’t consistently involved in the Obama administration’s efforts to question recently-captured high-value ISIS fighters.
Queries to the Pentagon, the White House and the HIG failed to produce a clear answer as to why — both the HIG, through the FBI, and the Pentagon declined to comment, and the White House would not comment on the record. The group has helped with the interrogation of ISIS suspects in the past — including Umm Sayyaf, the wife of ISIS leader Abu Sayyaf who was killed in a raid by U.S. Special Forces.
And then something changed. Umm Sayyaf was handed over to Kurdish forces to be prosecuted, nixing chances of the HIG bringing an ISIS terror suspect to U.S. federal court. Then, the U.S. official recounted, the HIG declined to get involved in the Pentagon’s subsequent ISIS interrogations, which included the questioning of an ISIS chemical engineer who was captured by U.S. forces in northern Iraq earlier this year. The government official said the group cited a lack of “national intelligence value” in declining to join what is perhaps the most significant interrogation and detention mission since Obama took office in 2008 and disbanded the CIA’s now defunct-torture program.
The HIG, through the FBI press office, declined multiple requests for comment.
“I am stunned. I am literally stunned. It seems like that is a casebook example of why the HIG was created. Whether or not there’s a law enforcement interest, there’s cleary national security interest,” one recently retired senior intelligence officer said, requesting anonymity to discuss the group, whose deployments and operations are classified. “The HIG is still in the process of socializing itself in the community, generating awareness of its capability and building the reputation as a main player in interrogation...and the failure to respond to this opportunity might very well be a strategic inflection point for the HIG.”
The HIG’s continued struggle for relevance offers a unique view into the internal confusion over how, exactly, the Obama administration wants to conduct counterterrorism intelligence. It opts for a fly-by-night system that relies on a patchwork of foreign governments, federal courts, and an array of federal agencies.
“To be honest with you, there is no system,” the retired intelligence official said. “Other than the fact that, if there’s a high-level detainee, you call the high-level detainee interrogation group. I mean, that’s why it’s in the name. Other than that, it’s still kind of the same fractured, turf-battling, dysfunctional process that led to the CIA creating an interrogation program.”
The White House laid out its detention and interrogation policy — or lack thereof — in its recently released formal plan to shutter the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, a pervasive symbol of the Bush Administration's own failures in detention and interrogation strategy.
“The Administration approaches new captures on a case-by-case basis with a range of options, including: prosecution in the military commission system or in Federal court; transfer to another country for an appropriate disposition there; or law of war detention, in appropriate cases,” the plan says.
The senior administration official said current strategies are “consistent with our longstanding policies, including our commitment to address any security threat posed, ensure humane treatment, and provide appropriate notification and access for the International Committee of the Red Cross.”
Pressed why the White House would not say which of its agencies is leading the new interrogation effort, the official said “who deploys when and where is not policy guidance.”
“Capture is always the best option,” said Major General Clay Hutmacher, the deputy commanding general of Army Special Forces, whose forces make up a substantial portion of the small, elite units that are raiding and capturing ISIS fighters. “We’re not going to kill our way out of this.”
Obama’s strategy, the White House has said, allows ground commanders flexibility when dealing with detained suspects.
But critics say that masks the lack of coherence or staying power of Obama’s fledgling detention and interrogation policy. Put simply, they say, there isn’t one, and nowhere is that lack of clarity better illustrated than through the HIG.
Set up in 2009, and led by an FBI-designee with support from both the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency, the group focuses on interrogation strategies that aim to build a rapport with the subject in order to convince them to provide information. Along with its interrogators who can be sent into the field, the HIG also funds research and training into interrogation.
“The bottom line is, that the previous policy of long term indefinite detention without charge or trial...proved to be an utter disaster, from a legal and policy point of view,” said Raha Wala, the director for national security advocacy at Human Rights First, a human rights organization in Washington, D.C. that helps advise the HIG. “We’re also still dealing with the fallout of torture and other detainee abuse.”
Despite initial excitement over the HIG group’s potential, Washington’s interest has waned over the years. Internally, officials have questioned whether its interrogators are any good, and it has struggled to elbow its way into current interrogation strategy discussions — leaving its supporters baffled as to why the HIG would willingly pass up an opportunity to deploy.
“That’s what the HIG was supposed to do, create a new standard of interrogation,” the senior intelligence official said. “But I’m quite sure that’s not reality I hear from various other agencies, from FBI to [Defense Department] organizations, they don’t defer to the HIG as being the creme de la creme.”
The group’s current director, longtime FBI agent Frazier Thompson, told BuzzFeed News in a rare interview earlier this year that its expert interrogators have been dispatched 34 times.
“I always think that the more we’re involved in anything related to interrogation, whether it’s operations, training, research...the more we’re involved in it, based on our research, the better,” Thompson said at the time. “The more we can get out the door, the more we can get deployed I think is a benefit.”
Ali Watkins is a national security correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Ali Watkins at email@example.com.
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