FBI agents opt out of harsh interrogations

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An FBI agent assigned in 2002 to help obtain intelligence from a top al Qaeda operative challenged the interrogation techniques used on the terrorism suspect by the CIA, taking what a government report yesterday described as his “strong concerns” to senior officials in the bureau’s counterterrorism division.

The unidentified agent was one of two the FBI deployed to question Abu Zubaydah, a high-ranking al Qaeda member and close associate of Osama bin Laden who was wounded and captured in March 2002 in Pakistan, according to a report by the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General.

The agents had conducted the initial interviews, assisted in Zubaydah’s care and developed what the 370-page report called “rapport with him” when the CIA arrived and “assumed control of the interrogation.” The report said the FBI agents observed the CIA use of “classified techniques that undoubtedly would not be permitted under FBI interview policies.”

The CIA has since acknowledged that Zubaydah was subjected to an interrogation technique known as “waterboarding,” or simulated drowning.

Inspector General Glenn A. Fine said in the report that the vast majority of FBI agents deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay as part of the war on terrorism opted not to participate in the more aggressive and controversial interrogation techniques of detainees used by the CIA and the U.S. military. He also said the unnamed agent’s report to his supervisors led to discussions at FBI headquarters in Washington - which included the Justice Department and the CIA.

“Ultimately, these discussions resulted in the determination by FBI Director Robert Mueller in approximately August 2002 that the FBI would not participate in joint interrogations of detainees with other agencies in which harsh or extreme techniques not allowed by the FBI would be employed,” Mr. Fine said.

“Most FBI agents adhered to the FBI’s traditional interview strategies in the military zones and avoided participating in the aggressive or questionable interrogation techniques that the military employed,” he said. “We found no instances in which an FBI agent participated in clear detainee abuse of the kind that some military interrogators used.”

In September 2006, President Bush identified Zubaydah as “a senior terrorist leader” who had given U.S. authorities significant information about al Qaeda, but when he refused to respond to further questioning, “the CIA used an alternative set of procedures.”

CIA Director Michael V. Hayden has identified Zubaydah as one of three al Qaeda suspects who were subjected to waterboarding. The others were Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, suspected mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, named in the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000.

“We believe the FBI should be credited for its conduct and professionalism in detainee interrogations in the military zones and in generally avoiding participation in detainee abuse,” Mr. Fine said.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said while FBI agents appear to have adhered to a clear policy in the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Iraq and Afghanistan, Mr. Mueller should have been “more forthcoming” when the committee questioned him about the interrogations in May 2004.

“Had he done so, he might have helped paved the way for Congress to investigate allegations of abuse sooner,” Mr. Leahy said.

Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the report shows that officials at the highest levels of government knew of the abuse of prisoners in U.S. military custody overseas as early as 2002 but did nothing about it.

“Top government officials in the Defense Department, CIA and even as high as the White House turned a blind eye to torture and abuse and failed to act aggressively to end it,” Mr. Romero said.

The FBI said yesterday that it was “gratified” by the IG’s report, adding that it would continue to employ “the same non-coercive, rapport-based interview techniques to detainees encountered in military zones that we employ every day in every aspect of our mission, whether in the U.S. or abroad.”

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