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Military tactics worried FBI interrogators

Times Staff Writer

FBI agents who assisted with overseas interrogations of suspected terrorists after Sept. 11 often clashed with their military counterparts and refused to participate in the most aggressive intelligence-gathering methods because they doubted they were legal or effective, a long-awaited Justice Department audit found.

At the same time, the report released Tuesday by Inspector Gen. Glenn A. Fine faults officials at FBI headquarters for failing to provide prompt guidance to agents in the field on what to do if they witnessed interrogations using snarling dogs, sexual ploys and other abusive techniques that violated long-standing FBI policy.

The audit also found that, as early as 2002, agents were raising questions about whether the rough tactics were legal and whether evidence secured under the circumstances would stand up in court if the suspects were ever prosecuted. But Justice Department officials were mostly focused on whether the interrogations were yielding valuable intelligence rather than whether they violated any laws, the report says.

Concerns about military interrogation tactics reached the White House as early as 2003, Fine reported, but they were apparently dismissed. Aides to former Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft told Fine that Ashcroft in 2003 raised questions about the rough treatment of one detainee with Condoleezza Rice, who was then national security advisor. But Justice officials told investigators that those high-level talks also appeared to have no impact on curbing the aggressive tactics. Fine said Ashcroft declined to be interviewed as part of his investigation.

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The 370-page analysis, more than three years in the making, generally portrays the FBI as having taken a principled stand against abusive interrogations and torture. Though it describes FBI dealings with other agencies, it does not attempt to assess the conduct of CIA or military interrogators. Their efforts have been condemned by human rights groups and others since abuses at the Abu Ghraib military prison outside Baghdad were exposed in 2004.

The report says the FBI deserved credit for deciding in 2002 to continue to follow its own strict interrogation policies. The FBI said it was “gratified” by the findings.

The American Civil Liberties Union said the report showed that top FBI and Justice Department officials should have stepped in sooner to stop coercive questioning and that the leadership was more concerned with avoiding responsibility than with enforcing the law. A few months after FBI agents began raising concerns, the Justice Department secretly prepared a legal opinion that sanctioned harsh interrogation methods by the CIA.

Other critics said the reservations expressed by the FBI foreshadowed legal difficulties the Pentagon is now facing as it prepares to try terrorism suspects at the Guantanamo Bay military tribunal in Cuba.

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The report shows that harsh methods “were not working, would not work and would come back to haunt the United States as it moved from intelligence gathering to prosecution,” said Jennifer Daskal, a lawyer with Human Rights Watch, a Washington-based advocacy group. “This is exactly what we are seeing now, with the efforts to prosecute the alleged terrorists in Guantanamo Bay fatally tainted by the possible use of evidence obtained through torture and other abuse.”

According to Fine, friction between the FBI and the CIA surfaced in the spring of 2002, when two FBI agents were assigned to help the CIA obtain information from alleged Al Qaeda operations chief Abu Zubaydah, who was captured in Pakistan in 2002. Zubaydah is one of three detainees the Bush administration has acknowledged subjecting to a type of simulated drowning known as waterboarding.

The internal Justice auditors found no evidence that FBI agents witnessed or were aware of CIA interrogators using that technique. But other aggressive techniques the CIA was using gave the agents pause and raised concerns about the moral and legal culpability of observing interrogations that violated FBI policy. One FBI agent at the scene objected that techniques the CIA was using on Zubaydah amounted to “borderline torture,” according to the Fine report.

Friction between the FBI and the military surfaced in late 2002 over the handling of alleged Al Qaeda operative Mohammed Qahtani, who was being held at Guantanamo Bay. Fine said the FBI favored building rapport with the suspect over a long period so he might be persuaded to cooperate; the military insisted on a more aggressive tack. In one instance, that included attaching a leash to him and making him perform dog tricks.

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FBI concerns about those practices were flagged to top Justice Department officials. But senior officials there told Fine that concerns about the legality of the techniques or their impact on future prosecutions was never a focus. The overriding concern, he found, was whether techniques were effective at developing “actionable intelligence.”

The Pentagon, which is gearing up for the death penalty trials of several suspects in the Sept. 11 attacks, announced last week that it was dropping charges against Qahtani. The alleged “20th hijacker” had been designated for prosecution in February.

“We found no evidence that the FBI’s concerns influenced [Department of Defense] interrogation policies,” the report says. Once it was established that military interrogators were permitted to use interrogation techniques not available to FBI agents, the agents stopped complaining as much.

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rick.schmitt@latimes.com


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