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Congress Quietly Approves Secret Interrogation Group

A defense bill passed by lawmakers finally ties an interagency interrogation force to something bigger than an executive order.

Last updated on November 10, 2015, at 5:48 p.m. ET

Posted on November 10, 2015, at 5:43 p.m. ET

Mladen Antonov / AFP / Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers quietly signed off on the existence of President Barack Obama’s secret interrogation force on Tuesday, solidifying — at least for the moment — the future of the FBI-led High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group.

That force, an interagency body of Washington’s top interrogation professionals that is dispatched all over the world to interrogate captured enemy combatants, was never formally approved by Congress. Instead, it existed solely through an executive order and a classified charter, signed by the Obama administration as an alternative to the disgraced CIA torture program. Its precarious ties to a White House mandate had some of the interrogation group’s supporters concerned that the next administration could erase it with the stroke of a pen.

But tucked away in a section of this year's National Defense Authorization Act’s subsection on interrogation techniques, a clause specifically refers to the interrogation group, colloquially called the “HIG,” and mandates its place at the table as Washington navigates its still-developing interrogation strategy. That inclusion will likely make it more difficult for Obama’s successor to disband it.

"Not later than 120 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the interagency body established pursuant to Executive Order 13491 (commonly known as the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group) shall submit to the Secretary of Defense, the Director of National Intelligence, the Attorney General, and other appropriate officials a report on best practices for interrogation that do not involve the use of force," the bill reads.

The clause requires the HIG provide a list of researched interrogation techniques to administration officials throughout the government in a report that is to be publicly released. The HIG, which largely relies on psychologically vetted, rapport-based questioning, routinely commissions outside research into the most effective methods of interrogation.

The HIG’s inclusion in the 2016 defense bill was part of a larger effort from Senate Intelligence Committee ranking member Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who last year shepherded a landmark Senate report on the post-9/11 torture program through a politically charged battle over its public release.

That report, released last December, revealed sweeping abuses and mismanagement of the CIA-led interrogation operation, including the use of techniques such as waterboarding and rectal feeding. Feinstein has been working with Senate Armed Services Committee chair John McCain (R-Ariz.) for nearly a year to pass legislation forbidding the U.S. from using such techniques in the future.

“I’d like to thank John McCain,” Feinstein said after the bill’s passage Tuesday. “He fought hard to get the language [into the bill] that he’s very important so we have some statutory confidence that this will never happen again.”

Feinstein added that her understanding of the NDAA language is that it more firmly backs the existence of the FBI-led interrogation group.

There are precious few other formal references to the HIG in past legislation. Government archive records show a 2010 amendment sponsored by McCain that required the group’s National Security Council-authored charter be provided to lawmakers, but other attempts to write the HIG into law appear to have been lost in the congressional shuffle.

The group itself has been shrouded in secrecy since its beginnings at the dawn of the Obama presidency. Many government officials refuse to even say how many times its teams have been dispatched to question terror suspects, citing classification concerns, and some have questioned whether the group’s interrogators are any good.

The FBI, though, says the HIG has proven valuable.

“Much of our operational work is necessarily classified,” Frazier Thompson, the HIG’s current director, said at a recent bureau event. “But I can tell you this—as a result of the HIG, plots to harm the U.S. and its allies have been disrupted, dangerous people have been put behind bars, and gaps in U.S. intelligence collection have been bridged.”

The NDAA, and with it, the HIG measure, is now on its way to the White House for formal signature.