White House terrorism adviser John Brennan said Tuesday a special team of investigators has begun interrogating high-value terrorist suspects in the U.S. and abroad, including the man accused in the failed Times Square bombing.
At a foreign policy forum, Brennan confirmed that the so-called high-value detainee interrogation group, or the HIG, has been at work for the past few months.
The elite team of investigators from the FBI, CIA and Defense Department was set up to question terror suspects as soon as possible after an arrest. The idea is to quickly extract information from a would-be terrorist to head off any plots that might be about to unfold and track down anyone who might have aided the suspect.
The White House was furious when it found the HIG had not been officially formed in time to question Christmas Day bombing suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab despite a direct order from the president last fall, according to one current and one former senior counterterrorist official. Both spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not cleared to speak to the news media.
Brennan would not say exactly when the unit was put together, though its charter was drawn up only in April, said a senior Senate staffer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case. But Brennan said that many of the elements that now make up the HIG's mobile interrogation teams were called upon to question Abdulmutallab.
During a question-and-answer session at a discussion sponsored by the Nixon Center, Brennan confirmed that the HIG had been used to question Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistan-born U.S. citizen accused of driving an SUV rigged with explosives into Times Square. The bomb did not explode. Brennan did not elaborate on the questioning.
The unit as it exists now is run by the FBI and headed by an FBI employee with two deputies — one from the CIA and one from the Defense Department, the officials said. Its three regional teams — their locations have not been disclosed — will be staffed by a full-time team of experts, including everything from linguists to terrorist analysts to professional interrogators. The permanent teams will be supplemented by other government specialists, depending on the suspect. The teams' duties include everything from questioning suspects to researching the best ways to get the most information out of them.
The HIG's mobile teams also won't necessarily be the first investigators on the scene, the officials say. Inside the U.S., it might be the FBI or an existing Joint Terrorism Task Force unit that responds first. The HIG's teams would then be deployed on a case-by-case basis to supplement those efforts stateside or overseas at military bases or foreign detention centers if the suspect is held by a willing U.S. ally.
Senior administration officials say while the HIG's teams were not designed to gather evidence for prosecution, they'll work to preserve evidence that might be needed in court.
The senior administration officials insist the group can legally be used to question U.S. citizens or foreigners — and that includes the participation of CIA agents. But one added that an effort would be made to keep the CIA agents out of the interrogation process inside the U.S. to avoid having defense attorneys call them into court.
The Defense Department this month implemented a new rule that requires the videotaping of all interrogations on military bases, but the rule does not apply when FBI and CIA agents are involved or in a foreign nation's detention facilities.