The White House says it will directly supervise a new unit that is being set up to interrogate high value terror detainees. The announcement came Monday as the Obama administration named a federal prosecutor who will investigate past cases of detainee mistreatment.
For years, the Central Intelligence Agency stood at the forefront of U.S. efforts to extract information from terror suspects in the post-9/11 era. That role is changing, according to White House spokesman Bill Burton.
"The president, at the consensus recommendation of his inter-agency task force on interrogations and detainees did put in place a new group, the High-Value Interrogation Group, which will be housed at the FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigations]," said Bill Burton. "And it will bring together all the different elements of the intelligence community to get the best intelligence possible."
Burton spoke in Massachusetts, where President Barack Obama is on a weeklong vacation.
Administration officials say the CIA will continue to take part in interrogations, but that an FBI official will direct the effort with oversight by the National Security Council, which reports directly to the president.
President Obama came to office promising to outlaw torture in U.S. intelligence gathering. But just what constitutes torture has been a matter of debate in Washington. The Bush administration strenuously defended so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques" like sleep deprivation to obtain information from detainees, and admitted to harsher treatment, like the simulated drowning technique called water boarding, that was used in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 terror attacks.
The Obama administration has made no move to prosecute former high ranking Bush administration officials for torture, but has left open the possibility of charging anyone who exceeded Bush-era guidelines on the treatment of terror suspects.
White House spokesman Burton says President Obama's view of the matter has not changed.
"He [Obama] does agree with the attorney general that anyone who conducted actions that had been sanctioned [by the Bush administration] should not be prosecuted," he said. "But ultimately, the decisions on who is investigated and who is prosecuted are up to the attorney general. The president thinks that Eric Holder, who he appointed as a very independent attorney general, should make those decisions."
Attorney General Holder later selected federal prosecutor John Durham to investigate prisoner abuse cases. Durham is already probing the destruction of dozens of videotapes of CIA interrogations that could have shed additional light on U.S. treatment of terror suspects.
Meanwhile, the Justice Department released a declassified CIA report from 2004 detailing past interrogations of terror suspects and the techniques that were used. In one case, a U.S. interrogator reportedly threatened to kill the children of detained al Qaida mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed if new terrorist attacks were launched on the United States.
For some, the scrutiny and publicizing of past intelligence operations serves no purpose but to aid America's enemies. Former Vice President Dick Cheney spoke at length on the subject at a Washington forum in May.
"From the beginning of the [interrogation] program, there was only one focused and all-important purpose: we sought and we obtained specific information on terrorist plans," said Dick Cheney. "And to call this a program of torture is to libel [denigrate] the dedicated professionals who have saved American lives. After the most lethal and devastating terrorist attack ever, 7.5 years without a repeat is not a record to be rebuked and scorned, much less criminalized."
The Obama administration says the United States will follow interrogation guidelines set forth in the U.S. Army Field Manual, which conform with U.S. and international law.