NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
Right now, news about the interrogation of terror suspects, what CIA agents did and did not do under President Bush and how the Obama administration proposes to move forward. Any minute now, the Justice Department will release copies of a CIA inspector general's report into allegations that prisoners were abused, tortured, even killed during interrogation.
Earlier today, President Obama approved the creation of a new elite team to conduct the questioning of top terrorism suspects from now on. But still up in the air is whether or not U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder will open a criminal investigation into alleged CIA interrogation abuses.
Joining us now to talk about what we know so far are NPR's counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston and Newsweek Magazine special correspondent, Mark Hosenball. On Friday, he reported on some of what's in the report we will see more of later today.
Mark, let's start with you. We're still waiting the - on the official release of this report, but from what I hear, it is voluminous, something on the order of a thousand pages. I know you've spoken with people who've seen advance copies. What are we going to learn?
Mr. MARK HOSENBALL (Special Correspondent, Newsweek): Well, we're going to learn some more details about alleged abuses in the CIA detention and interrogation program, including, as I understand it, some allegation to the effect that at least one detainee, this guy Nashiri, alleged mastermind of the Cole bombing, was somehow threatened that his family members would be abused or raped or whatever. And also, that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind - or I guess the confessed mastermind of the 9/11 attacks - that he was threatened that members of his family would be killed in a part of - if he didn't cooperate with the CIA.
So there's - and we reported last Friday - my colleague Michael Isikoff and myself - in Newsweek that the report is also going to allege that the CIA conducted mock executions of some of these detainees to frighten them. And this man, Nashiri, the Cole bomber, was threatened with a gun and a power drill. They held up the power drill in front of him and went (makes noise) with it, the implication being that they would use it on him if he didn't talk.
These are all pressure tactics, tactics designed to threaten these people, in the case of the mock executions, with imminent death. And such tactics are forbidden both under International Conventions Against Torture and under American law forbidding torture. So these are allegations, essentially, that the CIA, or CIA people, you know, broke the law by going beyond guidelines -which are pretty flexible guidelines anyway - laid down by the Bush Justice Department in the way that they conducted these interrogations.
CONAN: So these are not simply, as you're suggesting, violations of law, but violations of the guidelines laid down by the Bush administration, the so-called Enhanced Interrogation guidelines.
Mr. HOSENBALL: That's correct. In fact, that's the standard which is being applied here, not necessary the law. The standard that's being applied here by the inspector general in his investigation is not necessarily whether the law was broken, but whether the Justice Department - the Bush Justice Department's interpretation of the law was violated. So that's what he's looking for, evidence that the Justice Department guidelines are violated. And from the sound of things, he found them.
Now, the CIA's point is that, well, they sent this report to the Justice Department back in 2004, that there are - career prosecutors looked at this report and, you know, have - apparently did. There were some disciplinary proceedings. There were some court martials. There's at least one person, the CIA contractor, prosecuted for killing a detainee. But the CIA says, well, the Justice Department has looked at this a long time ago and they should just leave it be. Why are they stirring this all up again? I think Holder's view and the view of the new administration is this wasn't necessarily investigated properly, and so now there should be further criminal investigation.
CONAN: And just let me ask you, Mark. Some people would say, certainly the death, well, that's very difficult and there's apparently some question as to when the injuries that the man died from were suffered. And that's, I guess, still to be resolved. But nevertheless, the tactics you're talking about -holding up a drill, mock executions, that sort of thing - some people would say, where does waterboarding come into that? That simulated drowning technique that we know was used in at least three cases.
Mr. HOSENBALL: Well, remember, waterboarding was one of the techniques at least initially approved of by the Bush Justice Department, which then had second thoughts about it and decided we're not going to do this anymore. And I think the CIA then felt - had second thoughts about this and stopped doing it even before the Justice Department advised them to stop doing it.
On the other hand, as I understand it, there will be a discussion in this report over the extent of the use of waterboarding, and maybe some of this detail will not be very pleasant to read but - from the sounds of things, because the Justice Department, at least initially, authorized the use of waterboarding, it's going to be very hard to prosecute people for doing that.
CONAN: And how many cases are we talking about? Dozens, scores, hundreds?
Mr. HOSENBALL: I think - I don't really know. Certainly, my sense is, you know, under 20, maybe more than a dozen.
CONAN: By the way, the document has now been released. Of course, it's going to take people a while to absorb it, a thousand pages are so in length. And again, it, according to the Associated Press, confirms what Mark was just telling us a moment ago, that interrogators threatened to kill the children of a September the 11th suspect. Also with us, of course, is Dina Temple-Raston, NPR's counterterrorism correspondent, with us from our bureau in New York.
Dina, nice to have you with us today, too.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Thanks, Neal.
CONAN: And I know you've been working on another part of this story, and that is, well, what to do about top terrorism suspects in the future.
RASTON: Right. They're putting together - and they announced this today - a special elite interrogation team that's supposed to, essentially, focus on these high-value detainees. The idea is being that if you have an elite team who have a, sort of, tool box, if you will, of good ways to interrogate people and get intelligence, that these sort of abuses that we're hearing about in the IG report aren't going to happen.
CONAN: And this unit is going to be supervised not by the Central Intelligence Agency, not by the Justice Department, but by the White House?
RASTON: Well, not exactly. I mean, this isn't a good day or a red-letter day for the CIA. Definitely in this interrogation team, they are being sidelined. The interrogation team is actually going to be run out of the FBI. And it will - and the director will be from the FBI and the deputy will be from the CIA. So that's sending a very clear message.
And then on top of that, originally, there had been some discussion of having the team report to the deputy attorney general. And the White House actually sent this recommendation back and said, you know what? We want to have a little more on - a hands-on view of this. And they're going to have them actually report to the National Security Council inside the White House.
And they made a big point today to say that they're not going to - the White House is not going to be calling operational tactics or strategizing or that sort of thing. I think this is more so that if someone starts coloring outside the lines, they find out right away.
CONAN: Yet that gives them primary responsibility, too, doesn't it?
RASTON: That's another way of looking at it. But you have to think that if the buck stops there, then it stops there.
CONAN: And then there is the question left hanging in the air and that is the -this report that's being released today proposes that these cases be reopened for investigation. As Mark Hosenball has been telling us, they were closed, and the Bush administration reopened them. Is the attorney general going to appoint a prosecutor to look into these?
RASTON: Well, it's looking increasingly like that's going to happen. But that announcement hasn't been made official yet. I mean, there's a lot of political cover he has now that he didn't have before, even if he was leaning in this direction. Apparently, when he read this IG report that we're going to see in redacted form pretty soon, he was so disgusted that he already started leaning towards getting a prosecutor to look into this. And then the Office of Public Responsibility has…
CONAN: That's an agency at the Justice Department.
RASTON: An ethics agency, essentially, at the Justice Department - has made a recommendation to the attorney general that, in fact, a prosecutor should be appointed. Now, that report hasn't been released yet, but we understand that's happened. So that gives Attorney General Eric Holder even more, sort of, cover so that it doesn't look like this is politically driven.
CONAN: And one more question on the politics of this, Dina, and that is that President Obama has always insisted that he wanted to look forward and not back. This is going to open, well, political problems with some conservatives -not like the president doesn't have those already. But, nevertheless, this is going to make some of his policy goals difficult.
RASTON: Well, yes, and it's also going to take attention away from health care, which maybe he'd like that to happen right now. But that was his single focus before. And, in fact, they said out of the summer White House at Martha's Vineyard this morning that they still - the president still wants to look forward and not back, but he'll support Eric Holder in whatever decision he makes.
CONAN: Mark Hosenball, as Dina Temple-Raston was just telling us, the CIA loses out on the creation of this new elite agency, and it's something of a nightmare for the intelligence service to go back and have its agents and its contractors scoured to see if they conducted criminal violations.
Mr. HOSENBALL: Well, I'm sure that there's not - everybody at the CIA will be totally distressed that this responsibility is being taken over from them. At least I know some people there who felt that they didn't really want to do this in the first place, that this whole program for interrogation and the detention of detainees - which was a capability that they didn't have before 9/11 - was essentially thrust upon them by the Bush administration and that the Bush administration at least made some people out there do things that they didn't want to do. On the other hand, there were also people there who seemed to have been very keen to please their political masters.
But I don't think that necessary everybody'll be distressed that this responsibility is being - that some of this responsibility is being taken away from them, although they'll certainly be distressed over the notion that they're being, I guess, disrespected or attacked now.
By the same token, you know, I think they are very distressed of the notion of a new investigation, a criminal investigation being opened that puts a whole bunch of people in jeopardy. It puts their careers in jeopardy, and it also takes them a lot of time to respond to criminal investigations.
And so, you know, I think there is an argument - and you're going to be hearing a lot of this from the general neighborhood of the intelligence community -that this investigation is going to tie them down and, you know, make people very risk-averse. And certainly, there is some truth in that. I don't know, you know, people are obviously exaggerating for their own purposes. But it's not necessarily the best thing that could happen to this agency in a wartime situation where they're still supposed to be out there gathering intelligence on bad guys.
CONAN: And what will they be doing if they're not - well, they're, to some degree, participating in this new elite task force that Dina was describing. But are they being cut out here?
Mr. HOSENBALL: Oh, I don't think they're being cut out of the use of intelligence, the analysis of intelligence. They're just not being left in charge of the specific tactics of, you know, questioning and detaining people.
CONAN: We're talking with Mark Hosenball, an investigative correspondent for Newsweek Magazine who's been covering the report in the magazine, published first on Friday there that - published some details of the inspector general's report released today under a Freedom of Information Act pursuit by the American Civil Liberties Union is being released as Dina Temple-Raston, our counterterrorism correspondent, told us, in redacted form. That means some parts are being blacked out to prevent certain facts from becoming public.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And Dina Temple-Raston, some of those - well, there are implications here for foreign policy, as well. The CIA conducted these alleged abuses, these interrogations - at least some of them - in so-called black prisons located in - well, we're not precisely sure where.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, we know there was one in Turkey. I think we know there was one in Thailand. But we don't know where else they were.
CONAN: And release of that information would presumably be very sensitive to those governments.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes. I would be exceedingly surprised if that's something that is not redacted from the report we're going to see today.
CONAN: And what else might be redacted - just in terms, not the actual facts, which I'm sure if you knew, you'd be delighted to tell us - but nevertheless, in terms of the kinds of information that might be excluded.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, for example, something that might be excluded - and again, you know, this is a speculation to a very large extent. But were there only three people waterboarded? This is what they've said up to now. And it stretches credibility a little bit that they have that and they use that and they only used it on three people. So that could be something that they would actually be blocking out of the particular report.
I think names will be blocked out, places will be blocked out. I mean, the important thing here is there was a reason why it was redacted in the first place. And it wasn't just to protect the CIA. It's to protect the way this country gathers intelligence in, often, a perfectly legal way. So, you know, they have to be careful not to tip their hand to people who would love to find out exactly what it is, where they have plants, where they have informants.
CONAN: Mark Hosenball, if these cases are pursued by a prosecutor, as every suggestion seems to be they will, how do you collect evidence on this? There were videotapes of some of these interrogations that were destroyed.
Mr. HOSENBALL: Well, I mean, certainly, they're going to have to interview the detainees, but the detainees will obviously have an ax the ground in this.
CONAN: And some may be unavailable.
Mr. HOSENBALL: And some of them might be unavailable. They're going to have to interview the CIA officers involved. If there were third parties involved, such as military people or foreign people, they're going to have to interview theirs. And I think one of the points that people at the CIA today make is that, well, prosecutors - and career prosecutors from the Justice Department already conducted this kind of investigation on the specific allegations made in this IG report some years ago, and basically felt - concluded that they didn't have enough evidence or there would be problems making any criminal cases here.
So, you know, can the new investigation build enough evidence to reach the standard that they can bring indictments and then get convictions in the federal court? The CIA people would argue that that's already been tried and, you know, rejected. So we'll have to see whether this is just an exercise in making the new administration sort of feel good and feel that they're taking a departure from the previous administration, or whether is really going to produce something new.
CONAN: And given the difficulties of gathering evidence to be able to be presented in the court and given the sensitivity of some of this material, as Dina was just is telling us about, would you expect that any of this is going to be tried in an open court?
Mr. HOSENBALL: Oh, I think it's going to be tried. I think any trial that's going to happen, at least a large proportion of it will be in an open court because they can't afford not to bring it an open court. It's, you know, that would just look like a further cover-up. So I think whatever they do, they'll have to try and present most of it in an open court if they have enough evidence to bring a case in court.
Maybe there would be some details that would somehow be kept out of court, but there are all kinds of procedures for, you know, laundering information, cleaning it up so you can present it in an open court. You know, most of the proceedings that we've had related to this whole issue have been in open court. So, I don't see them trying to take this behind closed doors. That carries all kinds of political problems that they're actually trying to clean up with all these disclosures. So I don't see that happening.
Ms. TEMPLE-RASTON: And Neal, there's one particular case that this might have a bearing on. It's actually in the UK. And it's a detainee who was released not long ago named Binyam Mohamed, who said that he was tortured in a black site in Morocco. The government in the UK has been going back and forth as to whether or not information that's related to him that's been kept secret up to now would be released.
And the U.S. has said if you release this intelligence information, then frankly, what's going to happen is we're going to stop sharing intelligence with you. So I wonder if they're going to be able to bridge this particular case with some sort of a non-redacted information, or non-blocked-out information in the report.
Mr. HOSENBALL: And sometimes I wonder, however, whether the British government exaggerates these American threats or out. But, you know…
Ms. TEMPLE-RASTON: Fair enough, but this might be something that they actually do have a little clarity on as we get through the thousand pages of the report.
CONAN: Dina Temple-Raston, NPR's counterterrorism correspondent, and Mark Hosenball, investigative correspondent for Newsweek Magazine. Thank you both very much. Again, that thousand-page report, the inspector general's report on alleged CIA abuses during the Bush era has been released. Stay tuned to NPR for details of that as they become available. I'm Neal Conan. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News in Washington.
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