Holder Taps Prosecutor to Probe CIA Abuses

John Durham, a federal prosecutor in Connecticut, speaks to reporters on the steps of U.S. District Court in New Haven, Conn. in this April 25, 2006 file photo. Durham has been chosen by Attorney General Michael Mukasey to oversee the destruction of CIA interrogation videotapes case.
AP (file)
The Obama administration is assigning a veteran U.S.prosecutor to begin a criminal probe of CIA questioning of terror suspects during the Bush administration, and a new detainee interrogation unit is being created to be supervised by the White House, officials said Monday.

Federal prosecutor John Durham will be appointed by Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate alleged CIA abuses, said a Justice Department official, speaking only on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to discuss the matter.

Word of that decision came within minutes of the release of a newly declassified CIA document describing how interrogators threatened to kill the children of one Sept. 11 suspect and may have threatened to sexually assault the mother of another detainee.

The administration also announced Monday that all U.S. interrogators will follow the rules for detainees laid out by the Army Field Manual. That decision aims to end years of fierce debate over how rough U.S. personnel can get with terror suspects in custody.

Formation of the new interrogation unit for "high-value" detainees does not mean the CIA is out of the business of questioning terror suspects, deputy White House press secretary Bill Burton told reporters covering the vacationing President Barack Obama in Massachusetts.

Burton said the unit will include "all these different elements under one group" and will be located at the FBI headquarters in Washington.

The unit, to be known as the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group, is to be led by an FBI official, with a deputy director from somewhere in the government's intelligence apparatus and members from across agencies. It will be directly supervised by the White House, but senior administration officials said the unit's agency bosses will make operational decisions.

Officials also said that in cases where terror suspects are transferred to other countries, the U.S. will work harder to ensure they are not tortured.

Durham, the man chosen for the investigation of possible interrogation abuses of the past, is already probing the destruction of videotapes of CIA questioning. He now will examine whether CIA officers or contractors broke laws in harsh handling of suspects.

"This is just an initial step," says CBS News chief legal analyst Andrew Cohen. "Just because there is now a prosecutor doesn't guarantee we'll see any CIA trials and certainly doesn't ensure any convictions. All of the problems that existed before-problems with classified information and inadmissible evidence-still remain."

"If the investigation generates a trial or two-and right now that is still a very big IF-we'd likely see a huge debate, in and out of court, over Bush-era interrogation policies, a debate the President very clearly said a few months ago that he didn't want to have," Cohen adds.

"I don't think that the Attorney General had much choice, politically anyway, but to take this step and launch this criminal investigation," Cohen says. "And even the CIA itself acknowledges that some of its agents, current and former, went beyond legal limits in interrogation. The question is whether crimes were committed and can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt."

"Durham is a dogged prosecutor, not nearly as flashy as his counterpart Patrick Fitzgerald, but clearly someone who should be able to swim in the deep waters that this investigation is going to track," Cohen notes. "He's going to have to battle not just any defendants he might charge but the CIA itself, and perhaps other intelligence agencies, who are going to try to protect their turf."

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 the Bush administration's interrogation practices 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 for going beyond the methods approved for interrogations by the Bush-era Justice Department. Just one CIA employee contractor David Passaro has been prosecuted for detainee abuse.

"The CIA has played a vital role in the work of the task force, and its substantive knowledge will be essential to interrogations going forward," agency spokesman George Little said Monday.

The administration confirmed the new interrogation unit on the same day the CIA inspector general unveiled a report on Bush administration handling of suspects. A federal judge ordered the report to be made public in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union.

In the future, all questioning of terror suspects will fall under the rules of the Army manual.

The manual, last updated in September 2006, prohibits forcing detainees to be naked, threatening them with military dogs, exposing them to extreme heat or cold, conducting mock executions, depriving them of food, water, or medical care, and waterboarding.

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.