WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama has approved creation of a new, special terrorism-era interrogation unit to be supervised by the White House, a top aide said Monday, further distancing his administration from President George W. Bush's detainee policies.
The administration has also decided that all U.S. interrogators will follow the rules for detainees laid out by the Army Field Manual, according to senior administration officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the decision. That decision aims to end years of fierce debate over how rough U.S. personnel can get with terror suspects in custody.
The new unit does not mean the CIA is now out of the interrogation business, deputy White House press secretary Bill Burton told reporters covering the vacationing Obama at Oak Bluffs, Mass.
Burton said the unit will include "all these different elements under one group," and it said that it will be situated at the FBI headquarters in Washington.
The unit would be led by an FBI official, with a deputy director from somewhere in the government's vast intelligence apparatus, and members from across agencies. It will be directly supervised by the White House, but the senior administration officials insisted the unit's agency bosses will make operational decisions, not the White House.
The officials also said that in cases where terror suspects are transferred to other countries, the U.S. will work harder to ensure the suspect is not tortured.
Separately, Burton said that a recommendation now before Attorney General Eric Holder to reopen and pursue prisoner abuse cases is a decision solely for Holder to make without any intervention from the president.
The structure of the new unit the White House is creating would depart significantly from such work under the previous administration, when the CIA had the lead and sometimes exclusive role in questioning al-Qaida suspects.
Obama campaigned vigorously against Bush's interrogation policies in his successful run for the presidency. He has said more recently he didn't particularly favor prosecuting Bush administration officials in connection with instances of prisoner abuse. Obama still believes "we should be looking forward, not backward," Burton said Monday.
Nonetheless, the spokesman added, Obama believes the attorney general should be fully independent from the White House and he has full faith in Holder to make the decision on whether to reopen several such cases with an eye toward possible criminal prosecution. "He ultimately is going to make the decisions," Burton said of Holder.
CIA Director Leon Panetta said in an e-mail message to agency employees Monday that he intends "to stand up for those officers who did what their country asked and who followed the legal guidance they were given. That is the president's position, too," he said.
Panetta said some CIA officers have been disciplined within the agency for going beyond the methods approved for interrogations by the Bush-era Justice Department. Just one CIA employee— contractor David Passaro— has ever been prosecuted for detainee abuse.
"The CIA has played a vital role in the work of the task force, and its substantive knowledge will be essential to interrogations going forward," agency spokesman George Little said Monday.
Obama campaigned vigorously against President George W. Bush's interrogation policies in his successful run for the presidency. He has said more recently he didn't particularly favor prosecuting Bush administration officials in connection with instances of prisoner abuse. But the issue now before Holder for consideration would have the new administration do precisely that: reopen several such cases with an eye toward possible criminal prosecution.
The new interrogation unit will be known by the acronym HIG.
The administration was publicly confirming the new interrogation unit on the same day that the CIA inspector general was to unveil a report on Bush administration handling of suspects. Details were expected to show that highly questionable tactics were used.
Now, all such questioning will fall under the rules of the Army manual.
The manual, last updated in September 2006, authorizes 19 interrogation methods used to question prisoners, including one allowing a detainee to be isolated from other inmates in some cases.
The manual prohibits forcing detainees to be naked, threatening them with military dogs, exposing them to extreme heat or cold, conducting mock executions, depriving them of food, water, or medical care, and waterboarding.
Subjecting prisoner abuse cases to a new review and possible prosecution could expose CIA employees and agency contractors to criminal prosecution for the alleged mistreatment of terror suspects in the years after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Holder reportedly reacted with disgust when he first read accounts of prisoner abuse earlier this year in a classified version of the IG report. And the Justice report is said to reveal how interrogators conducted mock executions and threatened at least one man with a gun and a power drill. Threatening a prisoner with death violates U.S. anti-torture laws.
A federal judge has ordered the IG report made public Monday, in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union.
The accounts of the White House-supervised interrogation unit and the ethics recommendation to Holder were first reported, respectively, by The Washington Post and The New York Times.
Associated Press Writer Pamela Hess and White House Correspondent Jennifer Loven contributed to this story from Washington and Associated Press Writer Phillip Elliott contributed from Oak Bluffs, Mass.