WASHINGTON — The Obama administration’s secret High Value Detainee Interrogation Group has been dispatched 34 times during its six years of existence, the head of the unit told BuzzFeed News, revealing a figure that FBI officials have repeatedly cited as classified.
Frazier Thompson, the director of the group colloquially referred to as the “HIG,” told BuzzFeed News the number during a rare sit-down interview on Wednesday. Thompson, who has led the group since early 2014, declined to say how many times it was dispatched on his watch.
The details of those dispatches are classified, Thompson said, primarily to protect the identities of HIG interrogators.
Set up in 2009 as the Obama White House's alternative to the CIA's now-defunct torture program, the HIG is an elite interagency interrogation team that is sent out domestically and internationally to interrogate only the nation's most high-value terror suspects. But the FBI and other government agencies have been notoriously reluctant to reveal how many times the HIG has been dispatched. Asked in recent months how many times the group has been used, the Bureau repeatedly declined to answer. The last available figure was from 2012, when then-FBI Director Robert Mueller told Congress the group had been used 14 times since 2010.
While a direct comparison is imperfect, 34 dispatches over the group's 6-year existence stands in stark contrast to the CIA's now-defunct torture program. That program, according to a Senate Intelligence Committee investigation, detained at least 119 terror suspects and subjected at least 39 of them to torturous interrogations from 2002 to the program's formal end in 2009.
When asked Wednesday why the group's figure was often cited as secret, Thompson said he didn’t know.
“I’m a firm believer in what we can bring to the table...The more we can get out the door, the more we can get deployed I think is a benefit,” he said. “When we link our deployments with a particular instance [or] person, that’s classified to protect...the members of the HIG, and to protect what the U.S. government’s gaps in sources and methods are.”
Thompson later clarified through the FBI press office the classification status of HIG personnel. "When linked to deployments, the identities of HIG personnel are classified," he said. "Even when not linked to deployments, the identities of HIG personnel are deemed sensitive and may be classified due to agency affiliation, job classifications and duties."
Thompson said the group cannot reveal the names of the suspects it has interrogated as that information of classified. It has previously been reported that through the years the group has interrogated detainees both internationally and domestically, including Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Umm Sayyaf, the wife of ISIS leader Abu Sayyaf.
Asked Wednesday if the HIG or FBI could provide a list of suspected terrorists the group has interrogated, Thompson said that information was classified.
Thompson and FBI press officers met individually with several news organizations at FBI headquarters on Wednesday, a rare move that could signal a shift in tactics for the HIG, which has traditionally shied away from public and journalistic scrutiny alike.
That aversion to sunlight has left the group struggling for relevance in Washington, where defenders and critics of the HIG question whether the fledgling interagency shop is operationally effective enough to hang with long-standing interrogation houses like the FBI and defense intelligence agencies. One of the HIG’s defenders, who was familiar with the group's dealings with Congress, told BuzzFeed News last month that they “just don’t know how to play the Washington game.”
“It’s not a game. I’m not gonna play a game,” Thompson said Wednesday. “My goal, what I want to do — I’m out talking to all of our customers, partners. I see the HIG as a service entity, where we provide a service to the greater [U.S. Intelligence Community]. The FBI, legal attaches, our foreign partners, CIA chiefs of stations...we’re a resource that they can tap into.”