Terror Interrogations: Can the CIA and FBI Work Together?

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If President Obama green-lights a proposal to create an interagency team of interrogators to handle terrorist suspects, it will be — as Samuel Johnson said sardonically of second marriages — the triumph of hope over experience. The history of interagency cooperation on interrogation is both brief and bleak.

In the aftermath of 9/11, the CIA, lacking experience in interrogating jihadis, turned to experts from a military school where soldiers are trained to resist torture. These experts came up with a range of "coercive" interrogation techniques, including the now infamous waterboard. When these methods were employed at the Guantánamo Bay detention center, the methods led to an angry confrontation over their legality between interrogators from the FBI and the CIA. Eventually, the FBI withdrew from the interrogations — a less-than-amiable divorce, so to speak.

Yet, the President's task force on interrogation and transfer policies for terrorism suspects is readying a proposal for a new unit that will once again join together several agencies. The task force, granted a two-month extension last week, has until the fall to submit its report, but officials familiar with the deliberations say the interagency unit — comprising experts from the FBI, CIA and the military — will be a big element in any new interrogation blueprint presented to the White House.

Unsurprisingly, the plan is being greeted with skepticism by many in the intel community. One veteran interrogator, now retired, says the proposal "is either stupid, or very stupid." He argues that interagency teams are doomed to fail because of the practical problems of dealing with multiple bureaucracies, and the political infighting between their bosses. Turf battles are inevitable, because each member of the team "carries the equities of his own agency."

Amy Zegart, a UCLA professor and national security expert, says the differences are more fundamental: the agencies have divergent missions and requirements. In any interrogation, she says, "they're looking for very different things: for the military, it's what's over the next hill; for the Bureau, it's evidence that will hold up in a courtroom; for the CIA, it's information that gives the President decision advantage." Reconciling all these interests may be impossible.

But some intel experts say pooling the different agencies' interrogation resources may be the practical solution to a basic problem: although the U.S. has captured thousands of terrorism suspects in the six years after 9/11, it still lacks the ability to consistently extract information from them. "A small professional cadre of interrogators, which can be brought in by any agency that needs their services, would be a good idea," says Carl Ford, an ex-CIA hand who headed the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research.

Eric Maddox, an Army staff sergeant with extensive interrogation experience in Iraq, agrees. The agencies, he says, may have different missions, but that should not prevent them from sharing the expertise they've accumulated in recent years. "After 9/11, it should not be a problem to unify the agendas," he says. "The key is strong leadership."

But who exactly should lead the interrogation team? The task force has not yet formed a view on which agency should have overall command, although some reports suggest the CIA has been ruled out. Maddox himself believes the team should report to the Pentagon, since the military has the greatest experience in interrogating terrorist suspects.

Intel experts disagree, arguing that the military's interrogators tend to be low-ranking soldiers who are unlikely to have much understanding of the psychological aspects of interrogation — or the broader strategic implication of the information gleaned. "Military guys, they want to know the location of the next IED, the next arms cache — immediately actionable information," says the retired interrogator. "Intel people, we like a more long-term view. We want to know about the structure of a terrorist organization, the larger objectives."