Elite High Value Interrogation Unit Is Taking Its First Painful Steps

In February 2009, after two wars and years of confusion over the best way to interrogate a terrorist, the Obama administration created a special unit called the High Value Detainee Interrogation Group (HIG) to relearn how to get critical information from suspects in custody.

Fifteen months later and in the wake of the failed car-bombing in Times Square, the question now is: where are they?

The HIG was supposed to bring together all that the U.S. had learned about getting prisoners to talk, the intent being to make the nation's intelligence sector more effective. Based on a recommendation by a fact-finding intelligence panel, it was to be an interagency group staffed by the best interrogators in government -- with broad powers to travel and decide interrogation techniques on a case-by-case basis.

More importantly, the HIG was to report directly to the National Security Council -- ending a longtime bureaucratic war between the CIA and the FBI over who would control interrogations, a battle that had damaged intelligence operations.

Now, after a rocky start, sources say the secretive unit is almost up and running. But just how functional it is remains a matter of some dispute.

Five months ago, after the Christmas Day arrest in Detroit of the alleged "underwear bomber" Umar Farouq Abdulmutallab, intelligence watchers were stunned to learn that the HIG not only didn't participate in his interrogation, but it was not yet operational. And now, despite reports that the HIG has been involved in the Times Square bombing case, intelligence sources say it is still a work in progress.

"It is like a lot of other government programs. It is a good idea but difficult to put together," said a CIA source familiar with its workings. "There are a lot of moving parts to put together. It is wrong to say it is not functioning; it is just not working that well — yet," the source said.

The source denied press reports that the HIG was deeply involved in the interrogation of Times Square bomb suspect Faisal Shahzad. "Because of location, that is handled largely by the bureau and the JTTG," the source explained, referring to the Joint Terrorism Task Force. "The HIG is not really designed for domestic use. Its intent is overseas targets; home turf is just different.”

Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd, acknowledging in effect that HIG isn't running the case, wrote in response to questions that "elements of the High Value Detainee Interrogation Group (HIG) were deployed (to New York) and the intelligence community was and continues to be engaged to support the investigation and interrogation of Faisal Shahzad."

The FBI issued a similarly terse statement. "The HIG is operational. Elements of it are being used in this investigation," chief spokesman Paul Bresson wrote.

Other law enforcement sources agreed, saying the extent of HIG's help in the case was to send several “subject matter experts” to aid in Shahzad's interrogation.

But Professor Jordan Tama, of American University's School of International Service, said that HIG's involvement, no matter how big or small, was significant because "involving outsiders in these cases is a step forward."

"Even if the HIG is a work in progress, it is still progress," Tama said. "Considering that the group was just chartered in January, its involvement in the Times Square bombing represents a step forward."

The HIG was authorized and formed in February 2009 after a task force reviewing intelligence recommended it.  But it took some time to create its charter, which states what it can do, because it steps on a lot of toes. Then came the failed Christmas Day bombing -- and the charter was rushed  through.

Tama said that the HIG, despite growing pains, "is a credit to the Obama administration's efforts to bring order to the intelligence agencies," and that it represents a chance to settle many controversies, such as the use of harsh measures, that have befuddled interrogators since 2001.

One of HIG's key missions, he explained, "was to establish 'best practices' techniques for interrogations" and to settle disputes over what works and what doesn’t in interrogations.

But it still promises to be a long road.

Shortly after the Christmas Day bomb suspect was arrested, National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair testified before Congress that his interrogation by the FBI had been a mistake and that the HIG should have been called into the investigation. "We did not invoke the HIG in this case. We should have," Blair said.

"We need to make these decisions more carefully. I was not consulted. The decision was made at the scene," he complained.

But he was forced to back away from the statement later that day, acknowledging that HIG wasn’t "fully operational."

Now, five months later, it still isn't.