The new unit does not mean the CIA is now out of the interrogation business, deputy White House press secretary Bill Burton told reporters covering the vacationing Obama at Oak Bluffs on Martha's Vineyard, Mass.
Burton said the unit will include "all these different elements under one group," and it said that it will be situated at the FBI headquarters in Washington. The unit would be led by an FBI official, with a deputy director from somewhere in the government's vast intelligence apparatus, and members from across agencies. It will be directly supervised by the White House.
The Washington Post first reported on the unit. You can read more about it here.
Separately, Burton said that a recommendation now before Attorney General Eric Holder to reopen and pursue prisoner abuse cases is a decision solely for Holder to make without any intervention from the president.
The structure of the new unit the White House is creating would depart significantly from such work under the previous administration, when the CIA had the lead and sometimes exclusive role in questioning al Qaeda suspects.
Obama campaigned vigorously against Bush's interrogation policies in his successful run for the presidency. He has said more recently he didn't particularly favor prosecuting Bush administration officials in connection with instances of prisoner abuse. Obama still believes "we should be looking forward, not backward," Burton said Monday.
Nonetheless, the spokesman added, Obama believes the attorney general should be fully independent from the White House and he has full faith in Holder to make the decision on whether to reopen several such cases with an eye toward possible criminal prosecution. "He ultimately is going to make the decisions," Burton said of Holder.
CIA Director Leon Panetta said in an e-mail message to agency employees Monday that he intends "to stand up for those officers who did what their country asked and who followed the legal guidance they were given. That is the president's position, too," he said.
Panetta said some CIA officers have been disciplined within the agency for going beyond the methods approved for interrogations by the Bush-era Justice Department. Just one CIA employee contractor David Passaro has ever been prosecuted for detainee abuse. (Read more about the note Panetta sent to staff)
A U.S. intelligence official said earlier that the CIA welcomed the new interrogation unit, saying the agency does not want to be in the long-term detention business. The official spoke on grounds of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss it publicly.
Obama campaigned vigorously against President George W. Bush's interrogation policies in his successful run for the presidency. He has said more recently he didn't particularly favor prosecuting Bush administration officials in connection with instances of prisoner abuse. But the issue now before Holder for consideration would have the new administration do precisely that: reopen several such cases with an eye toward possible criminal prosecution.
A government official confirmed to The AP the recommendation of Justice's ethics office on grounds of anonymity, citing the internal legal deliberations and indicating they remain ongoing.
Obama created task forces to study U.S. policy and practices on handling terrorism captives shortly after taking office. Obama has vowed to close the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, military prison by next year, hoping to free those prisoners against whom there is no case, to transfer others to the custody of other countries and to put still others on trial, ending their condition of limbo in the U.S. brig.
The new interrogation unit will be known by the acronym HIG, and more information was to be made public later Monday.
The new group and new directives to rely solely on the Army Field Manual when interrogating prisoners is an attempt by the administration to separate itself from allegations that the previous administration tortured some prisoners. While the practice of waterboarding - simulated drowning - already has been banned, the directive to stick only to procedures in the field manual means other harsh tactics, such as subjecting prisoners to loud music for long periods and sleep deprivation, are also now a thing of the past.
The administration was publicly confirming the new interrogation unit on the same day that the CIA inspector general was to unveil a report on Bush administration handling of suspects. Details were expected to show that highly questionable tactics were used.
Subjecting prisoner abuse cases to a new review and possible prosecution could expose CIA employees and agency contractors to criminal prosecution for the alleged mistreatment of terror suspects in the years after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Holder reportedly reacted with disgust when he first read accounts of prisoner abuse earlier this year in a classified version of the IG report. And the Justice report is said to reveal how interrogators conducted mock executions and threatened at least one man with a gun and a power drill. Threatening a prisoner with death violates U.S. anti-torture laws.
A federal judge has ordered the IG report made public Monday, in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union.
A CIA spokesman, Paul Gimigliano, told the Times that the recommendation to reopen the cases had not been sent to the agency.
The accounts of the White House-supervised interrogation unit and the ethics recommendation to Holder were first reported, respectively, by The Washington Post and The New York Times.