A Justice Department official says Attorney General Eric Holder has picked prosecutor John Durham to investigate CIA mistreatment of terror suspects.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to disclose the decision. Durham is already investigating the destruction of videotapes of CIA interrogations, and now will examine whether CIA officers or contractors broke laws in rough handling of suspects.
The news of Holder’s decision was first reported by The Washington Post.
The decision comes as the Obama administration releases a newly unclassified CIA report detailing CIA treatment of terror suspects. The report says one interrogator threatened to kill the children of a Sept. 11 suspect, and another may have threatened to assault a suspect’s mother in front of him.
The document, released Monday by the U.S. Justice Department, says one interrogator said a colleague had told Khalid Sheikh Mohammed that if any other attacks happened in the United States, “We’re going to kill your children.”
Another interrogator allegedly tried to convince a different terror suspect detainee that his mother would be sexually assaulted in front of him — though the interrogator in question denied making such a threat.
The report, written in 2004, examined CIA treatment of terror detainees following the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. It has been declassified as part of a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union.
The administration has also decided that all U.S. interrogators will follow the rules for detainees laid out by the U.S. Army Field Manual, according to senior administration officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the decision. That decision aims to end years of fierce debate over how rough U.S. personnel can get with terror suspects in custody.
Earlier Monday, the White House announced the creation of a new, special terrorism-era interrogation unit to be supervised by the White House. The new unit does not mean the CIA is now out of the interrogation business, deputy White House press secretary Bill Burton told reporters covering the vacationing Obama in Massachusetts.
Burton said the unit will include “all these different elements under one group,” and it said that it will be situated at the FBI headquarters in Washington.
The unit would be led by an FBI official, with a deputy director from somewhere in the government’s vast intelligence apparatus, and members from across agencies. It will be directly supervised by the White House, but the senior administration officials insisted the unit’s agency bosses will make operational decisions, not the White House.
The officials also said that in cases where terror suspects are transferred to other countries, the U.S. will work harder to ensure the suspect is not tortured.
The structure of the new unit the White House is creating would depart significantly from such work under the previous administration, when the CIA had the lead and sometimes exclusive role in questioning al-Qaeda suspects.
Obama campaigned vigorously against Bush’s interrogation policies in his successful run for the presidency. He has said more recently he didn’t particularly favor prosecuting Bush administration officials in connection with instances of prisoner abuse. Obama still believes “we should be looking forward, not backward,” Burton said Monday.
Nonetheless, the spokesman added, Obama believes the attorney general should be fully independent from the White House and he has full faith in Holder to make the decision on whether to reopen several such cases with an eye toward possible criminal prosecution. “He ultimately is going to make the decisions,” Burton said of Holder.
CIA Director Leon Panetta said in an e-mail message to agency employees Monday that he intends “to stand up for those officers who did what their country asked and who followed the legal guidance they were given. That is the president’s position, too,” he said.
Panetta said some CIA officers have been disciplined within the agency for going beyond the methods approved for interrogations by the Bush-era Justice Department. Just one CIA employee — contractor David Passaro— has ever been prosecuted for detainee abuse.
“The CIA has played a vital role in the work of the task force, and its substantive knowledge will be essential to interrogations going forward,” agency spokesman George Little said Monday.
Obama campaigned vigorously against President George W. Bush’s interrogation policies in his successful run for the presidency. He has said more recently he didn’t particularly favor prosecuting Bush administration officials in connection with instances of prisoner abuse.
The new interrogation unit will be known by the acronym HIG.
Subjecting prisoner abuse cases to a new review and possible prosecution could expose CIA employees and agency contractors to criminal prosecution for the alleged mistreatment of terror suspects in the years after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks against the United States.