The Washington Post’s Anne E. Kornblut broke the story yesterday of the expected creation of a new inter-agency elite group of interrogators know as the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group (aka the “HIG”) who will “question key terrorism suspects” as “part of a broader effort to revamp U.S. policy on detention and interrogation.” The White House confirmed that the President had indeed signed off on the HIG, which will be overseen by the White House and National Security Council and housed at the FBI. The new group will be expected to follow the Army Field Manual, unless its “scientific research program for interrogation,” which it will also oversee, supports otherwise.
Where does the HIG leave the CIA? And how about the ODNI, whose “goal is to effectively integrate foreign, military and domestic intelligence in defense of the homeland and of United States interests abroad.” By all accounts, yesterday wasn’t a good day for intelligence agencies. It remains unclear what role either organization will have in the HIG, though the White House has said they will have seats at the table. One wonders whether that means that they will be at the kiddie table down the hall, far away from the adult table where serious discussions are happening. The CIA was having an especially bad day, as the New York Times reported that Attorney General Eric Holder named John H. Durham, a veteran federal prosecutor out of Connecticut, to examine how the CIA treated prisoners and whether a full criminal investigation of CIA employees and contractors for abuse was merited.
While it is clear that President Obama is trying to distinguish his Administration’s interrogation and detention policies from that of his predecessor, what is not so clear is how the creation of the HIG will accomplish that. If the CIA’s policies and procedures of most concern were generated and supported by some in the White House in the Bush Administration, how will creating a unit that reports directly back to the White House eliminate potentially potential influence, regardless of who is in the White House? Does the creation of the group at the FBI mean that we are merging even further the legal and procedural regimes that govern criminal and intelligence cases?
Perhaps these questions will be answered when more details about the HIG emerge. Until then, it feels a lot like a High Value (And potentially High Cost) Shuffling of Chairs in areas in need of serious oversight and analysis.