Sorting Through The National Security News

A half dozen major national security stories intersected today, reflecting major policy changes, major personality conflicts and major political conflicts yet to be faced. Some traffic cop-ing is in order.

1. Most importantly, the executive office of the President has given itself direct operational authority over the interrogations of high-value detainees. A new inter-agency squadron of interrogators, called HIG, will be overseen by an FBI agent working in consultation with counter-terrorism staff at the National Security Council.  For the first time since the late 1980s, when the NSC's role in facilitating the Iran Contras was exposed, the executive office of the president will control an operational intelligence-gathering unit of the government. As National Journal's Shane Harris writes,

The White House is now taking on direct responsibility for overseeing the interrogation of some of the most important terrorist suspects. That means that NSC staff officials, presumably, will not only be held accountable for what happens to those suspects in U.S. custody, but might also be expected to weigh in on how the interrogations should be conducted.

The White House insists that its role will be "policy only" -- but in practice, the distinction between "policy guidance" and "operational guidance" is thin. The HIG will be overseen by John Brennan's small staff at NSC and will be run out of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

2. The Army Field Manual is the start, but won't be the end, of guidance for interrogations. A Justice Department task force recommended that the White House adopt the manual for interrogations across the government. But at the same time, it recommended the establishment of a panel to study and test new practices. ("In addition, the Task Force recommended that a scientific research program for interrogation be established to study the comparative effectiveness of interrogation approaches and techniques, with the goal of identifying the existing techniques that are most effective and developing new lawful techniques to improve intelligence interrogations.")   You might be surprised at some of the techniques that the Army Field Manual doesn't ban, including verbal aggression, limited sleep deprivation and deception.

3. Renditions will continue, albeit under new guidelines. While those guidelines remain classified, they seem to relate to ways of being able to accurately assess the assurance that other countries provide the U.S. about whether an individual detainee will face torture.  The task force did not recommend that intelligence agencies -- like CIA -- stay out of the rendition business.

4. The CIA, institutionally, is happy that the decisions about how to interrogate specific prisoners will now be made by the National Security Council. The presumption for each interrogation will be that the practices will be used to gather intelligence, but the CIA will no longer have to worry that its operatives and practices will be subject to exposure if and when those prisoners are given federal trials or military tribunals. The FBI will always have a public face it can display, and the evidence obtained under legal interrogations is less likely to be tainted.

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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