The White House made the news official on Monday morning: The CIA will no longer be taking the lead in terrorism interrogations. The FBI will be in charge instead.
"A lot of people don't know that half the FBI's mission is to gather intelligence," said White House press secretary Bill Burton from Martha's Vineyard, where the president is vacationing. "What this does is this houses all these different elements under one group where they can best perform their duties. The intelligence community will have a deputy in this group, and obviously the CIA will be very involved with this."
When asked if the CIA would even have a seat at the table, Burton provided a one-word answer: "Yes."
A seat at the table is a far cry from what the CIA had enjoyed after the Sept. 11 attacks. The intelligence agency started running intelligence interrogations even though they had little experience in doing so. Some experts say the reason the interrogations went awry was because the CIA was learning on the fly.
This new team is meant to be a way to prevent such mistakes from happening again. It would be drawn from the best interrogators at the FBI, the CIA and the Defense Department. But in a backhanded rebuke to the CIA, the responsibility of intelligence interrogations has moved away from the agency. The new interrogation team's director will be drawn from the FBI's ranks. His or her deputy will come from somewhere in the intelligence community. The White House's National Security Council will oversee the entire enterprise.
"Al-Qaida has more in common with a criminal gang or criminal organization than it does with rank and file soldiers, so this makes sense," says military interrogator Matthew Alexander. "The methods that are very effective are the ones that police detectives and criminal investigators use all the time, and the FBI is particularly well suited to conduct those interrogations because they do criminal investigations and they do criminal interrogations."
Alexander is speaking from experience. He was in charge of a handpicked interrogation team that worked on one of the most important counter-terrorism operations of the Iraq war: the hunt for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the man in charge of al-Qaida in Iraq.
The military had been searching for him for three years; it took Alexander's team two months to find him. Using the same kind of criminal interrogation techniques the FBI uses, Alexander's team got a detainee to reveal where Zarqawi was hiding. He was killed June 7, 2006, in an airstrike based on that intelligence.
These kind of interrogation techniques were made famous by a World War II interrogator named Hans Scharff. Young interrogators learn all about Scharff in their early training.
"The technique that he used that was so effective against allied pilots was one of rapport-building and relationship-building in which he got to know his prisoners, took them for long walks in the forest, and put them so much at ease that they unwittingly gave up information," says Alexander.
Ideally, the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group, or HIG, would turn into a team of Hans Scharffs — a group of experienced interrogators whose sole purpose would be to tap key terrorists for intelligence information.
The White House also announced Monday that going forward there would be a single standard for interrogations: the Army Field Manual, which defines interrogation policies and techniques for the military. The FBI and Defense Department largely followed its guidelines in interrogation; the CIA did not.
Col. Steve Kleinman trains Air Force interrogators. He says the new team is a good idea, but using the Army Field Manual to interrogate terrorism suspects is like putting a Band-Aid on a gaping chest wound. "The Field Manual does not benefit from incredible new understanding in human behavior, social psychology, psychology of persuasion that has emerged from researchers in the last several decades," he said.
He thinks that the interrogation task force should have taken a look at what works and what doesn't, and then set guidelines from there. And then there is another problem: The CIA has a history of not sharing classified information and using that to bully its way into leading interrogations. So what's to stop that from happening in this situation?
"Not a lot," Alexander says. "I do think it is endemic within CIA culture to want to take control and be the biggest lion in the kingdom."
Officials say it is unclear who from the FBI will lead the task force. They say they haven't gotten that far yet.