09/24/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Interrogation Elite

President Obama's administration announced the creation of an elite interagency interrogation team to handle captured high-level terrorists. It was also announced that the team would be led by the FBI, but include professionals from other government agencies.

There are qualified, competent interrogators in all of our government agencies, so there is a large pool of skilled personnel from which to draw. The FBI, DEA, ICE, and numerous other government agencies, as well as the military services, have special agents and criminal investigators versed in interrogating criminal subjects, skills easily transferred to intelligence interrogations (especially since Al Qaida is organized more like a criminal enterprise versus a traditional rank and file army).

Ultimately, however, the success of an elite interrogation team will be dependent upon the leadership of the team, not who signs their paychecks, and leadership of the interrogation team will be as important as the actual interrogations. It involves prioritizing detainees and information requirements, matching interrogators to detainees, and advising on interrogation strategies. The bureaucratic hurdles that are sure to arise given the inevitable power struggles will make the leadership challenge difficult.

In addition to these pragmatic requirements, there is a need for ethical leadership. As a first line supervisor of interrogators, the leader of this elite team will have to make the hard calls on the permissibility of techniques. This individual should have the moral fortitude to determine when interrogation techniques are inconsistent with American principles and have the courage (and authority) to intervene when required. Strong, ethical leadership also provides a safeguard for preventing torture and abuse from occurring, especially considering that such crimes were illegal prior to 9/11, yet took place.

The United States military has vast experience in leading diverse teams, as other government agencies are normally included in its combat task forces. Yet, leadership is not qualified by one's parent organization, rather by the individual's unique ability. Whether or not the team succeeds or fails will be based on the individuals on the team and the quality of its leadership, not the power distribution.

The current Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTF's) are examples of interagency teams that have proven successful. These task forces are led by the FBI, but include members of U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies. The success of a JTTF is highly dependent on the supervisor's ability to lead a diverse team of personnel with competing allegiances.

An elite interrogation unit is a step forward in preventing terrorist attacks only if the team is managed by a competent, extraordinary leader. The U.S. should focus on training and selecting competent interrogation team leaders to ensure the success of these future elite interrogation teams.