Throwing Umm Sayyaf to the Kurds

Today Ali Watkins had a long report on the problems with the High Value Interrogation Group, which Obama instituted in 2009 to try to standardize on scientific alternatives to torture. Among its problems: it has no institutional structure, agencies resist having FBI in charge and therefore withhold their best interrogators, and it’s not being checked for results.

But six years on, the Obama administration’s elite interrogation force is on shaky ground. U.S. officials and outside critics question the effectiveness of its interrogators, whether they’re following their own training, and whether they can continue to rely on psychological research to help break suspects. Congress and the White House, which once saw the group as a key to reinventing the nation’s counterterrorism strategy, aren’t paying attention. And those struggles illuminate a broader reality: Obama’s limited reforms to how American detains, interrogates and prosecutes suspected terrorists are ad-hoc and fragile

Given what I’ve seen of some of the interrogations conducted by HIG, I also suspect there are differing takes on what constitutes a “successful” interrogation.

Watkins points to the interrogation of Umm Sayyaf, the wife of a top ISIS commander tied to the kidnapping and rape of Kayla Mueller, as an example of how the conflicting agency equities play out.

Certain intelligence shops would prefer to keep their top interrogators to themselves, these sources argue, which means the HIG gets whoever’s left. U.S. intelligence agencies sometimes interrogate the same detainees the HIG questions — and claim better results. Military officials have told reporters that Umm Sayyaf, one of the people the HIG interrogated, provided invaluable information on ISIS before being turned overto Iraqi Kurdish authorities. But “the HIG hardly got anything out of her,” a second U.S. official told HuffPost. “It was all [non-HIG Defense Department interrogators].”

Also today, Daily Beast has an article on the fate of Umm Sayyaf. It emphasizes that the Iraqi woman couldn’t be turned over to American authorities because of Iraq’s justice system.

Umm Sayyaf, who is an Iraqi citizen, was captured by U.S. forces in Syria. She was interrogated in Iraq by an American unit that operates outside the traditional criminal justice system. But the decision on where to try her was based largely in deference to Iraqi law. And she will now be turned over not to the government of Iraq in Baghdad, but Iraq’s Kurdish regional government in Erbil, which is expected to “throw the book” at her, and perhaps do much more than that.

Iraq’s own legal system made extraditing Umm Sayyaf difficult if not impossible, said one senior administration official.

“We discussed the idea of her surrender and extradition to the U.S. with senior-level [government of Iraq] officials, but ultimately that option was not available as Iraq has a constitutional prohibition on surrendering Iraqi citizens to foreign authorities,” the official said.

But they also note that not enough of the evidence from the reportedly more effective interrogation of Umm Sayyaf would be admissible in a US court.

What’s more, even if Umm Sayyaf, whose real name is Nasrin As’ad Ibrahim, were brought back to an American courtroom, officials worried that they didn’t have enough evidence to build a case against her, at least not one that would persuade 12 jurors beyond a reasonable doubt that Umm Sayyaf was responsible for Mueller’s abduction and death, Defense Department officials told The Daily Beast.

Umm Sayyaf was interrogated by a special U.S. team outside the traditional legal protections afforded to people held inside the United States. While much of the information her questioners obtained was exceptionally valuable for intelligence purposes, and, Defense officials said, pointed to Mueller having been raped by the top ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the information might not be admissible as evidence in a U.S. criminal trial.

This was a key point of HIG: to be able to conduct interrogations that would not taint a case for a US criminal court. I’m not convinced all the evidence they submitted in trials should have been, but they’ve succeeded in working within the US justice system.

The implication is the HIG is in trouble because no one wants to do that.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

5 replies
  1. GKJames says:

    With respect to the value of whatever “techniques” are in vogue, it’s more of the usual, namely, the back-alley knife fights among government agencies. As for the fate of Umm Sayyaf, the US government’s concern with legal niceties is neither characteristic nor convincing. Could it be that they didn’t get much out of her (maybe because there wasn’t much to get) and–in what in fact would be characteristic–out of pique decided to hand her over to the Kurds who, last time I checked, were the only group seriously taking it to ISIS in combat. This would be the same US government that, after more than a decade, continues to insist on incarcerating people at Guantanamo for far less (and even nothing at all).

  2. scribe says:

    This is what happens when, instead of putting the torturers and lawbreakers in prison and using them pour encourager les autres on the rest of the intel/law enforcement bureaucracy, you keep them on, promote some of them, rely on them closely (John Brennan, Exhibit A), and try to cobble together something from that.
    .
    The fact remains that the fundamental thrust of US action and policy has remained the same since 1/20/01 – the USG tortures, breaks the commitments it made to act humanely, and stomps on and incarcerates the honest, the law-abiding, and the ones who point out the criminality of their fellow government employees. The Bush/Cheney rampage continues, unabated. And Obama has failed, repeatedly, to even try to change that.

  3. Denis says:

    When one says Sayyaf was “the wife of a top ISIS commander”, that could mean anything. Reports this week are that Mueller was al-Baghdadi’s “wife,” according to al-Baghdadi. The word “wife” has pernicious undertones in conversations about these ISIS cretins.

    Ever notice the way the government, particularly prosecutors, always say they couldn’t get enough evidence to convict instead of just saying the suspect is probably innocent and is certainly presumed to be innocent? By saying that they can’t get enough evidence they are implying the person is really guilty, whereas, in truth, the person probably shouldn’t have been busted in the first place.
    .
    Good closing line: “The implication is the HIG is in trouble because no one wants to do that.” But, hey, Obama tried. I would have said the US Constitution is in trouble as well as Americans’ self-delusion that they are really a good, righteous, and law-abiding people.

  4. Jeff Kaye says:

    “an American unit that operates outside the traditional criminal justice system”

    “a special U.S. team outside the traditional legal protections afforded to people held inside the United States

    Why so shy, Shane and Nancy? Sounds like Special Forces interrogators. Could be DIA HUMINT, or could be CIA.

    And why isn’t the “evidence” admissible? Torture.

    If the political demise of Cheney meant anything, it was the end of straight-shooting talk. What Cheney said, the others thought, and acted accordingly.

    Obama, the polite imperialist.

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