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Has Elite Interrogation Group Lived Up To Expectations?


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

The man known as Abu Anas al-Libi appeared in a New York courtroom yesterday and pleaded not guilty to terrorism charges over his alleged role in the 1998 U.S. bombings in East Africa. Al-Libi was snatched by U.S. Special Forces from Libya earlier this month. For a week, he was held on a Navy ship somewhere in the Mediterranean, while interrogators worked to extract information. Those interrogators belong to a special group created by President Obama to get intelligence out of al-Qaida-linked suspects.

NPR's Carrie Johnson reports, national security experts say they are not sure that group has lived up to expectations.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: It's called the High Value Interrogation Group, and when the White House unveiled it back in 2009, officials sold the idea as a way to question the most dangerous terrorists while reserving the right to prosecute them later in American courts.

Michael Allen, who worked on national security in the Bush White House and in the Congress, says the group has value because it puts experts from the FBI, the CIA and the Pentagon on the same page.

MICHAEL ALLEN: The High Value Interrogation group, on paper, conceptually, is a good idea, in that it brings together all elements of intelligence power and law enforcement power to an interrogation of a suspected terrorist.

JOHNSON: A sort of all-star SEAL Team 6 for interrogations. So far, the group has mobilized for would-be Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad, accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and, just last week, somewhere onboard the USS San Antonio, was Abu Anas al-Libi. He was indicted for his role in the 1998 Africa Embassy bombings.

But Allen, a consultant and author of "Blinking Red," a book on intelligence reforms, says there haven't been enough cases to judge how effective the interrogation group is.

ALLEN: I think that what we're going to have to see is, ultimately, a judgment on whether it's been effective and whether bureaucratic problems have prevented its effectiveness. And so I guess the jury is still out.

JOHNSON: Two former government officials say the FBI-led group has gone without a director for long stretches of time, and that, in some cases, host countries have denied interrogators access to high-value terrorism suspects. Civil liberties groups, meanwhile, are uncomfortable about it for another reason.

Hina Shamsi of the ACLU says there's no need to hold suspects in a sort of limbo.

HINA SHAMSI: There appears to be this mythology that military custody and interrogation in military custody - even if by civilian agencies - is somehow going to be more effective or get us more different kinds of information than the criminal justice system.

JOHNSON: Shamsi says regular interrogations work just fine. She has doubts about the Obama model, where a detainee moves from military custody back into the criminal justice system, where a new team of FBI agents comes in to deliver Miranda warnings.

SHAMSI: And you have to wonder why it is that you would need a so-called High Value Interrogation Team that is followed by a clean team that apparently cleans up after them.

JOHNSON: Shamsi also takes issue with some of the methods the special team uses from the Army Field Manual, like prolonged isolation. It's not clear how much useful information interrogators got out of al-Libi. U.S. officials say they cut short the interrogation after only a week because al-Libi had serious medical problems, including hepatitis C that got worse after he refused to eat or drink on the ship.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.