WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is considering creating a special unit of professional interrogators to handle key terror suspects, focusing on intelligence-gathering rather than building criminal cases for prosecution, a government official said Saturday.
The recommendation is expected from a presidential task force on interrogation methods that plans to send some findings to the White House on Tuesday.
The official said the panel, which has not completed its work, has concluded that the unit of intelligence and law enforcement agencies should be created. The task force is unsure which agencies should have a role, though the CIA and FBI are expected to be important players, according to the official. He was not authorized to publicly discuss the panel's work and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Ben LaBolt, a White House spokesman, said President Barack Obama has not reviewed the task force's recommendations. LaBolt declined to discuss any findings. The recommendation about the new unit was first reported in Saturday's Wall Street Journal.
The unit's structure would depart significantly from such work under the Bush administration, when the CIA had the lead and sometimes exclusive role in questioning al-Qaida suspects. The task force has not reached a conclusion as to which agency should lead the unit or where it should be based, the official said.
Such a unit would not alter the Obama administration's decision banning harsh interrogation techniques such as waterboarding, which simulates drowning, that were authorized by the Bush administration. The Obama task force is examining what other techniques could be used, the official said.
Obama signed executive orders when he took office in January calling for government task forces to recommend future policies for interrogating and detaining suspected terrorists. The deadline for those recommendations is Tuesday, but the work will take more time than that.
The coming week also marks the halfway point to Obama's deadline to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center: During his first week in office, he ordered the military-run center shuttered within a year.
That goal has been complicated by reluctance of U.S. allies, particularly in Europe, to take significant numbers of the remaining detainees. In addition, Congress, wary of transferring detainees to this country, even to maximum security prisons, has voted to withhold money to pay for the shutdown until the administration produces what it considers an acceptable relocation plan.
More than 90 percent of the detainees held at the U.S. military base in Cuba when he signed that order remain there. To its critics, "Gitmo" is a concrete-and-steel symbol of an American gulag; to supporters, it is as a critical safeguard against terrorism.
Guantanamo's detractors and defenders both say the administration's efforts so far suggest that deadline may lapse.
LaBolt said the administration is "making steady progress in reviewing the status of each Guantanamo detainee and in strengthening the military commission system to ensure that the detainees are brought to swift and certain justice."
He noted that Bush administration "succeeded in prosecuting only three detainees in more than seven years."
When Obama became president in January, there were about 245 inmates at the facility. After six months, the U.S. has relocated fewer than 20. Most of those were sent to other countries; one has been brought to U.S. to face trial in a civilian criminal court.
The administration has reviewed more than half of the remaining 229 detainee cases at Guantanamo.
The government hopes to transfer many of the detainees – including up to 100 Yemenis – to other nations for rehabilitation or release. A much smaller number is expected to be brought to trial by the Justice Department, and a separate group will be tried in military commissions.
A final group probably will be held without formal charges, subject to some form of regular judicial review.
The Bush administration created the Guantanamo facility after the Sept. 11 attacks. The intent was to deal with what U.S. officials called "the worst of the worst" among suspected terrorists. But over the years the U.S. released or transferred more than 500 of the inmates once held, including a number who clearly didn't fit that description.
Obama campaigned on a pledge to close Guantanamo. As president, he has seen members of his own party abandon him on he issue when Republicans mounted vocal opposition.
Democrats and Republicans alike voted joined in the vote to withhold funding – the first serious legislative setback of Obama's presidency.
"It demonstrates the president's first executive order was a fundamentally flawed judgment," said Rep. Peter King, the senior Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee who recently joined the House Intelligence Committee.
"I have no doubt the average American wants terrorists held in Guantanamo – they want tough policies against terrorism," he said.
Jonathan Hafetz, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the legal issues surrounding Guatanamo too often have been pushed aside by politics.
"There's been an ugly, angry backlash in Congress that's based on a mix of fear-mongering and misunderstanding. Obama has pledged to restore the rule of law and abide by the rule of law, and he needs to act out of principle, not political pressure," said Hafetz.
Hafetz argued the administration is subverting its own cause by pressing ahead with what he calls weak cases against particular prisoners. "That's inconsistent with their stated desire to close the prison within a year," he said.