Monday, August 24, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama has moved more forcefully than ever to abandon Bush administration interrogation policies, approving creation of a special White House unit for questioning terrorism suspects, as Attorney General Eric Holder weighs a Justice Department recommendation to reopen and pursue prisoner abuse cases.

A senior administration official told The Associated Press Monday that Obama has approved establishment of the new unit, to be known as the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group, which will be overseen by the National Security Council. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the program has not yet been officially announced.

A U.S. intelligence official said Monday that the CIA welcomes the change, saying the agency does not want to be in the long-term detention business. The official spoke on grounds of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss it publicly.

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. But the issue now before Holder for consideration would have the new administration do precisely that: reopen several such cases with an eye toward possible criminal prosecution.

A government official confirmed to The AP the recommendation of Justice’s ethics office on grounds of anonymity, citing the internal legal deliberations and indicating they remain ongoing.

Obama created task forces to study U.S. policy and practices on handling terrorism captives shortly after taking office. Obama has vowed to close the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, military prison by next year, hoping to free those prisoners against whom there is no case, to transfer others to the custody of other countries and to put still others on trial, ending their condition of limbo in the U.S. brig.

While information on the new interrogation unit, known by the acronym HIG, will be made public later Monday, the task force working on questions about Guantanamo and prisoners still held there has not completed its work.

The new group and new directives to rely solely on the Army Field Manual when interrogating prisoners is an attempt by the administration to separate itself from allegation that the Bush administration tortured some prisoners. While the practice of waterboarding — simulated drowning — has been banned, the field manual directives would also end the practice of subjecting prisoners to loud music for long periods and sleep deprivation.

The administration is announcing the new interrogation unit on the same day that the CIA inspector general was to unveil a report on Bush administration handling of suspects. Details were expected to show that highly questionable tactics were used.

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 attacks.

Holder reportedly reacted with disgust when he first read accounts of prisoner abuse earlier this year in a classified version of the IG report.

The Justice report is said to reveal how interrogators conducted mock executions and threatened at least one man with a gun and a power drill. Threatening a prisoner with death violates U.S. anti-torture laws.

A federal judge has ordered the IG report made public Monday, in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union.

A CIA spokesman, Paul Gimigliano, told the Times that the recommendation to reopen the cases had not been sent to the agency.

The accounts of the White House-supervised interrogation unit and the ethics recommendation to Holder were first reported, respectively, by The Washington Post and The New York Times.

The recommendation by the Office of Professional Responsibility was recently presented to Holder, an official, speaking on grounds of anonymity, told The Associated Press.

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-Qaida suspects.

Associated Press Writer Pamela Hess contributed to this story.

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