How to Evaluate the HIG? Exploitation? Dead Bodies?

Carrie Johnson uses the arraignment of Abu Anas al-Libi as an opportunity to consider the success of the High Value Interrogation Group. She weighs the following details:

  • There haven’t been that many cases
  • Some governments refuse access to HIG
  • The group lacks leadership
  • The clean team model has problems

But I think we need to take a step back.

First, while Johnson gives a list of some of the interrogations conducted by HIG, it’s not comprehensive (for example, it doesn’t include Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, with whom HIG was used in an ad lib capacity — it had just started; and it doesn’t include Manssor Arbabsiar). And it’s not clear we would know every time HIG gets used. For example, there were unnamed officials present at Ibragim Todashev’s death; given that we know HIG was used from the start with Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, it’s fair to at least ask whether any HIG members were present, and whether they remained in the room when Todashev was killed.

That expanded list of HIG interrogees quickly gets you to the question of consequences for HIG interrogees. Just from this possible list, you get questions such as,

  • If HIG was present at Todashev’s interrogation did they have a role in his killing?
  • Al-Libi was brought to New York because of health problems attributed to his choice to stop eating and drinking; did HIG use any food manipulation before this?
  • While I expect him to lose, Abdulmutallab’s appeal on competency grounds remains active; did HIG-induced solitary tip Abdulmutallab over the edge, as his appeal claims (he was reportedly not-altogether there when first detained)?

And these issues, plus the refusal of lawyers for Dzhokhar all could endanger convictions — and certainly, death penalties (which has already been taken off the table in al-Libi’s case) — in these cases.

Then there’s the question of what we’re after: the truth, or exploitation?

I’ve written about exploitation and HIG here, and Jason Leopold and Jeff Kaye showed how that — not necessarily truthful intelligence — was the goal of the torture program.

Exploitation is the use of interrogations not just to get intelligence, but also to support propaganda and/or generate informants. If exploitation is HIG’s goal, we might raise questions about whether both Abdulmutallab and Tsarnaev really implicated Anwar al-Awlaki of their own accord. In the former case, both non-HIG confessions did not implicate Awlaki as anything but an inspiration. In the latter, we know Tamerlan was also influenced by right wing propaganda. If exploitation is the goal, should we really believe the government story about the Scary Iran Plot, particularly given that most details of the “plot” — such as the restaurant targeted in Georgetown — came from our informant in the first place?

I don’t know the answer to these questions. But they seem to be ones we need to answer whether HIG works or not — to say nothing of whether a Democratic society should embrace HIG or not.

4 replies
  1. Brindle says:

    Hope we don’t lose emptywheel to “NewCo”—a veritable allstar team in the making….Whatever it becomes, it sounds exciting.

    —“You start with individual journalists who have their own reputations, deep subject matter expertise, clear points of view, an independent and outsider spirit, a dedicated online following, and their own way of working. The idea is to attract these people to NewCo, or find young journalists capable of working in this way, and then support them well.”—

  2. Jeff Kaye says:

    Ah, thanks for noticing, and revisiting an important point you have previously made.

    I will only add at this point, and I think I’ll write up something on this, that the HIG is tasked not just with interrogation, but with research into interrogation and “intelligence interviewing” (prev. called debriefing).

    But, how do you do “live” research on interrogation subjects without passing over the line into unethical science. In fact, you cannot. Hence, in the Arbabsiar case, as I pointed out, it was the intervention of Susan Brandon, who was supposedly behind a one-way mirror, or video, or taping (we can’t be entirely sure) was observing the interrogation of Arbabsiar for the HIG. Suddenly, after medical evals reveal Arbabsiar to be bipolar and likely manic during the period of his “confession,” Brandon submits a document to the court (withheld from release) and very quickly thereafter Arbabsiar suddenly pleads guilty.

    We are told Arbabsiar waived his right to be silent or to see an attorney (the med evals argue he was not competent at the time to do this), but was he ever aware he was the subject of a research project, or give informed consent for same? While this may seem of small notice to some, it is in fact of high importance for a number of reasons. Not least, the conflict between research goals and interrogation goals compromises the primary task of the HIG, mainly by confusing it. But that’s just the formality. It also entangles interrogations in a mire of ethical and legal confusion, which if it hasn’t been exploited by attorneys yet, will be.

    I would think the reason the HIG has bureaucratic problems and trouble finding a director is not least because of the dual and conflictual nature of its charter (both interrogation and research on interrogation), and also because of the “joint” nature of the enterprise, with agencies traditionally loathe to give up their prerogatives when it comes to intelligence interrogation.

    It also sets a precedent for the further evisceration of informed consent in this society, which is not a good thing at all.

    On the research charter for the HIG, see this FBI Broad Agency Announcement describing how to apply for HIG funding for research.

  3. earlofhuntingdon says:

    HIG seems to be an end run around police and prosecutors who still remember there was once a Constitution.

    Why should we have a flying squad of in-terror-gators whose only job is to muscle in on politically important accused criminals, depriving the accused, the prosecutorial and judicial processes the opportunity to work publicly and as planned until the government gets what it wants?

  4. Jeff Kaye says:

    @earlofhuntingdon: I think you answered your own question. Simply delete the first two words of your second paragraph and you have it precisely.

    They need such an instrument because they need to cover up their own tracks that cross those of the terrorists, as some portion of the terror is in fact done by US informants as either false-flag and/or a kind of blowback from some operation (an agent who they lost control of, for instance). Not to mention they must cover up the sheer mendacity and deep cynicism of their own actions. Al-Libi is in fact a great example of this, but as long as the press refuses to look into how the UK and their US allies manipulated AQ types in Libya, that aspect of the story will go unreported… as if it never existed.

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