Following the Jan. 20 disclosure that a special interrogation team for high-value terrorist suspects was not yet operational — months after it was supposed to have been — the Obama administration approved the charter to create the High-Value Interrogation Group, or HIG, an administration official tells ABC News.
The HIG charter was signed last week by National Security Adviser Gen. Jim Jones (ret.).
In congressional testimony on Jan. 20 in which he was discussing the decision to read Miranda rights to failed Christmas Day bomber, Umar Farouq Abdulmutallab, the director of national intelligence, Adm. Dennis Blair (ret.), said that a high-value interrogation unit “was created exactly for this purpose, to make a decision on whether a certain person who is detained should be treated as a case for federal prosecution or for some of the other means."
Continued Blair: "We did not invoke the HIG in this case. We should have. … That is what we will do now, and so we need to make those decisions more carefully. I was not consulted. The decision was made on the scene. It seemed logical to the people there. But it should have been taken using this HIG format at a higher level.”
His comments were interpreted as a rebuke of the decision to have the FBI interrogate Abdulmutallab. Before the end of the day, Blair issued a statement his remarks had "been misconstrued. The FBI interrogated Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab when they took him into custody. They received important intelligence at that time, drawing on the FBI’s expertise in interrogation that will be available in the HIG once it is fully operational."
This prompted criticism and questions as to why the HIG was not yet "fully operational" when the Special Task Force on Interrogations and Transfer Policies had announced its recommendation to form such a group last August.
An administration official said that though the HIG "was formally stood up last week" the administration had already "leveraged expertise from across the government – intelligence, military, and law enforcement – to effectively question terrorism suspects regardless of whose custody they are in. As we worked through a variety of administrative matters this fall, HIG personnel were identified and started preparing for deployment."
Because of this advance preparation, the Mobile Interrogation Teams (MITs) that are part of the formation of the HIG — expert analysts and interrogators drawn from throughout the intelligence community — "are currently deployed in support of counterterrorism activities," the official said.
MITs are deployed overseas with the primary purpose of collecting information to prevent terrorist attacks against the U.S. and its allies.
"Where possible and consistent with the HIG's primary objective," the official said, MITs "will collect intelligence in a manner that allows it to be used as evidence in a criminal prosecution."
The HIG "will follow deployment procedures that place interrogation teams at the relevant locations quickly without interfering with other government operations," the official said. It's an interagency group, administratively headquartered at the FBI. Its legal counsel will come from the National Security Division of the Justice Department.
The lead agency for providing immediate response to terrorism remain the 106 interagency Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTFs) of the FBI, "but HIG personnel (including members of MITs) will also be available to provide expertise and resources to support those domestic interrogations," the official said.