Special Interrogation Unit Plays Limited Role in Times Square Investigation

A special counterterrorism unit created by the Obama administration to replace the Bush administration's controversial CIA detention and interrogation program is playing only a limited role in the investigation of the attempted May 1 car bombing of New York's Times Square, according to four U.S. law-enforcement and intelligence officials who asked for anonymity when discussing sensitive information. The limited role of the interagency High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group (HIG) in the questioning of Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani-American suspect who has been arrested for attempting to carry out the failed attack, raises new questions about just what the HIG's mission is and when the unit is supposed to be deployed.

The four U.S. officials who spoke to Declassified all said that "elements" of the HIG, which reports to the Justice Department but is also supervised by a subcommittee of the National Security Council at the White House, are participating in the interrogation of Shahzad himself. However, two of the officials said that their understanding was that what HIG personnel are doing in the Shahzad investigation is providing "intelligence support" to FBI agents who are doing the actual questioning of Shahzad and who are not part of the HIG.

Two of the officials also said that the HIG is playing little to no role in the questioning of multiple presumed associates of Shahzad who were detained by authorities in Pakistan following the failed Times Square attack. The main reason that HIG personnel are not more involved in questioning potential witnesses and suspects picked up in Pakistan, the officials said, is because Pakistani authorities have declined to invite HIG personnel into their country to participate in the interrogations. As Declassified reported back in February, HIG personnel were also not deployed to Pakistani after authorities there captured Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, military commander of the Afghan Taliban and perhaps the most important terrorist leader captured since the arrest of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed seven years ago. One of the main reasons officials said at the time that HIG had not been sent to question Baradar after his capture was because of Pakistani unwillingness to allow the unit into the country.

As originally conceived, the HIG, under the leadership of an FBI agent but with CIA and Pentagon intelligence officers as deputy chiefs, would operate as a kind of roving interrogation SWAT team that would be on standby to fly to hot spots and interrogate newly captured terrorist leaders. The team would combine the expertise on terrorist movements and regional affairs of intelligence experts from the CIA, Pentagon, and other agencies with the cross-examination skills of veteran FBI interrogators. But under orders of President Obama, HIG would eschew coercive interrogation methods that human-rights advocates called "torture," such as waterboarding and sleep deprivation thatthe CIA used, but later abandoned, under instructions from the White House of President George W. Bush. The only interrogation techniques authorized for use by the HIG are nonviolent methods outlined in a U.S. Army field manual.

After the White House issued Obama's original blueprint for the HIG last summer, many people involved thought the principal focus of the group would be to interrogate very high-level terrorist suspects captured overseas. In the wake of an outbreak of political finger-pointing following the attempted Christmas Day underpants bombing of a transatlantic flight by Nigerian-born Jihadist Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, however, Dennis Blair, the national intelligence czar, came under criticism when he gave congressional testimony in which he said that HIG had not been deployed to question Abdulmutallab because its main focus was supposed to be on suspects nabbed outside the U.S.

Following that controversy, administration officials talked more about involving HIG in possible interrogations of suspects nabbed inside the U.S. However, officials at the CIA, which is not supposed to operate inside the U.S. except in limited circumstances and feels burned by its involvement in Bush's controversial interrogation practices, are hesitant to see their agency too deeply involved in domestic investigations. This is one of the reasons, said two of the officials, why HIG's role in the Shahzad interrogation has been limited to "intelligence support," meaning that CIA officers and others from HIG are advising the non-HIG FBI agents questioning Shahzad on what kind of questions to ask and whether the suspect's answers are credible, but are not participating directly in questioning the suspect themselves.

Another of the officials said that in any case, given the fact that Shahzad began cooperating with U.S. authorities literally minutes after Homeland Security officers took him off a flight from New York's JFK Airport to Dubai on May 3, the need for ultrasophisticated interrogation expertise, like the kind of expertise HIG is supposed to offer, is not necessarily warranted in Shahzad's case. As for witnesses or suspects picked up in Pakistan in connection with the Shahzad investigation, the official said, Pakistani authorities are doing most of the questioning themselves, though both Pakistani and U.S. officials say that the two governments are generously sharing information with each other.

Matt Miller, the Justice Department's chief spokesman, told Declassified: "Elements of the HIG have been working on this case." Paul Bresson, an FBI spokesman, said: "Every appropriate resource is being used in this case, including elements that are part of the HIG." A White House spokesman did not immediately respond to an e-mail from NEWSWEEK requesting comment.