The CIA has lost its prime role in conducting interrogations of terrorism suspects, but exactly how the U.S. government will handle key al-Qaida prisoners in the future remains unclear.
The Obama administration said this week that it will create a new office managed by the FBI and overseen by the White House to run interrogations, but officials have yet to work out exactly who the interrogators will be or where the sessions would take place.
Wherever those interrogations end up taking place, they will be conducted according to the rules laid out in the U.S. Army Field Manual, which bans some of the harshest techniques used in the CIA program, such as controlled drowning, known as waterboarding.
Some critics of the Obama administration, including former Vice President Dick Cheney, said the harsh techniques were necessary to extract intelligence from hardened terrorists, but many experts on interrogations say there are other, more effective methods that don't constitute torture.
The Army Field Manual does allow for some more severe techniques, such as sleep deprivation, to be used in certain circumstances. But while the CIA allowed detainees to be kept awake for 180 hours straight, the Army Field Manual says that prisoners must be allowed to sleep for at least four hours every day.
A former senior U.S. counterterrorism official says that most of the time interrogations of the kind conducted by the FBI, which do not employ severely coercive techniques, "will still yield the needed, and arguably better, intelligence."
But, the official added, "there is a small — thankfully— subset of individuals who are sociopaths, and no amount of verbal interrogation will be totally effective. These people exist and are encountered by law enforcement daily. They never confess, can lie to your face and then pass a polygraph. All that can be done is collect the evidence and convict and jail them."
One controversial practice that will continue under the Obama administration is rendition, where terrorism suspects are captured overseas by U.S. personnel and handed over to foreign custody for interrogation. In those cases, U.S. officials say they must receive assurances that the suspects will not be tortured, although foreign interrogators often have more leeway to use harsher interrogation techniques.
Obama administration officials also say that they will boost the government's capability to monitor the treatment of suspects delivered to third countries to prevent abuse or torture. "The U.S. government should not and will not transfer any individual where there is a likelihood they will be tortured," says a senior official in the administration.
Still, going forward, U.S. intelligence officials might more frequently decide to deliver high-value suspects to foreign countries to allow tougher questioning. Another advantage of rendition is that U.S. officials would not have to figure out how to bring these suspects to trial when the questioning is over.
"You're going to dump a lot more problems on foreign liaison partners, because it's just too hard to hack your way through the American bureaucracy to do it," worries a former senior intelligence official. "If a liaison partner has him, you'll be much less enthusiastic about getting unilateral access."
But other officials say that they would always prefer to have these suspects in U.S. custody, where experienced FBI and military officers in Obama's new High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group can evaluate their answers firsthand.
The CIA also will remain deeply involved, offering linguists, subject matter experts and others to assist interrogators. While the FBI will run the office, the No. 2 official will come from the intelligence community.
The National Security Council at the White House will have an oversight role, but it will be not be involved in decisions regarding individual detainees.
"The White House is not going to be involved in any of the operational decisions," says a senior U.S. official.
The number of high-value al-Qaida suspects taken into U.S. custody has dropped dramatically in the past three years. Between 2002, when the program started, and 2006, when it was suspended, the CIA held a total of 98 detainees. But only two suspects are known to have been held by the CIA after it resumed interrogations in mid-2007.
There is a chance that future U.S. interrogations could incorporate new techniques in the future.
The High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group will be studying a range of methods to determine whether there are effective techniques that are missing from the Army Field Manual and should be incorporated into the questioning of suspected terrorists.
Over time, a senior U.S. official said, the aim is to build an experienced cadre of professional interrogators and to "develop best practices" for interrogations based on scientific studies.