It's going to happen somewhere.

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U.S. Relies on Iraqis to Interrogate Jihadis

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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Since Iraqi and Kurdish forces started fighting the Islamic State, they have captured scores of the group's fighters. That's what Kurdish and Iraqi commanders and officials told me when I was in the country last week.

One might think fighters with detailed knowledge of the Islamic State's order of battle, inner workings and supply chains would be of keen interest to the 3,000 U.S. military advisers on the battlefield, not to mention the CIA officers stationed in Baghdad and Erbil.  But U.S., Kurdish and Iraqi officials all tell me the Americans do not interrogate the captured fighters, and that the CIA and U.S. military rely instead on reports from Iraqi and Kurdish intelligence officers who do the questioning.

This is not because the U.S. government has been denied access, these officials tell me, but is the result of U.S. policy to make interrogations of suspected terrorists safe, legal and rare.  

Masrour Barzani, the  Kurdish region's national security adviser and de facto intelligence chief, told me last month at his command center on the Syrian-Iraqi border that Kurdish Peshmerga forces have captured dozens of Islamic State fighters and detained them at a facility near Erbil. "We are working with the people that are meant to be informed," Barzani said when asked about cooperation with the U.S., careful to stress that his men were doing the informing. He described that cooperation, however, largely as analytical work, such as filling out details of the Islamic State's leadership.

Hisham al-Hashemi, a consultant to Iraq's ministry of defense, told me there were currently 83 Islamic State members in Iraqi custody. Al-Hashemi interviewed six of them in 2014 for his own research. He said they were housed at a prison at the old Muthanna airport in Baghdad. Two other Iraqi officials confirmed that Muthanna prison housed Islamic State prisoners, but said that the number of prisoners changed over time.

Other Kurdish and Iraqi officials told me reports on their interrogations were shared with the CIA and the U.S. military, but that U.S. officials did not go in and actually interview the detainees. These officials declined to discuss the issue on the record because it is sensitive in Iraq given the history of U.S. abuses of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib and other sites. 

Spokesmen for the CIA, the National Security Council and the Pentagon all declined to comment for this story.  But other U.S. officials did.  Senator Richard Burr, the new Republican chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, told me this week he had not heard of U.S. officials interviewing captured fighters inside Iraq. "If anyone was doing it, it would be the military, because the intelligence community is out of the interrogation business," he said.  And a recently retired senior U.S. defense added that "the special operations guys on the ground just don't have the bandwidth for this."

In some ways this should not be surprising. President Barack Obama has long struggled with interrogations. While he and his top advisers have insisted for years that the their preference is to capture terrorists alive, far more have been killed in drone strikes and other operations than have been captured.

The roots of this policy go back to the president's second day in office. On Jan. 22, 2009 Obama signed an executive order that ended the CIA's detention and interrogation of suspected high-value al-Qaeda leaders. That program was scandalized because the agency tormented suspected members of al-Qaeda with practices Obama himself has said was torture. With the CIA no longer in charge of interrogating and detaining suspected terrorists, Obama created the "High Value Detainee Interrogation Group," an interagency organization that would handle the questioning of suspected terrorists captured overseas. While this group has questioned some people, including Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani-born U.S. citizen who in 2010 attempted to detonate a bomb in Times Square, U.S. officials say it has only been used sparingly.

With Obama squeamish about detaining and questioning terrorism suspects, this often means foreign partners end up doing this messier kind of counter-terrorism work. 

Michael Smith, a principal at the counter-terrorism consulting firm Kronos Advisory, says this is what is happening in Iraq. In mid-December, Smith organized a meeting with a small group of former senior national security officials, including former Defense Intelligence Agency Director General Michael Flynn, at the State Department office of General John Allen, Obama's special envoy for the coalition against the Islamic State. 

"We held a meeting with General Allen to discuss the strategy for countering the Islamic State and the ways it could be supported by outside advisers," he told me. "I got the strong impression that the preference was to rely on Arab coalition partners to take the lead in risky on-the-ground intelligence activities, including interrogating captured foreign fighters."

The reliance on allied services -- whether they are Kurdish, Iraqi, Jordanian, Saudi or Turkish -- creates a new kind of human rights problem for Obama. While the U.S. ended the CIA's secret prisons and practices of waterboarding, sleep deprivation and rectal hydration, we are now dependent on intelligence gleaned from intelligence services that don't follow international law when questioning suspected terrorists.

Take, for example, the Muthanna prison in Baghdad, where Hashemi met with prisoners. In 2010, Human Rights Watch said former detainees there claimed to have been tortured. When I asked Hashemi about this, he gave a peculiar answer: "They punish them harshly but it’s better than Guantanamo." He said the detainees were treated in "the classic way," which he said involved occasional electric shocks and beatings on the soles of a prisoner's feet. "Most of them are foreigners. And most of them end up talking," said Hashemi. "They all give up information."

As most professional interrogators will tell you, testimony gleaned from people who are beaten or shocked can often end up being what the interrogator wants to hear, or what the detainee thinks he wants to hear. As NBC News reported in December, based on the report from Senate Intelligence Committee Democrats on the CIA's interrogation program, at one point after being waterboarded and slammed repeatedly against a wall, terrorist leader Khalid Sheikh Mohammed made up a story about how he tried to recruit al-Qaeda operatives in Montana.

Another problem with relying on allied intelligence services is that they often have their own agendas. One former U.S. government official who has worked on the war against the Islamic State told me anything we are getting from the Iraqis is probably being vetted by Iran. 

As Congress begins to debate a belated authorization for Obama's new war in Iraq and Syria, the sensitive issue of interrogations may come up again. Burr told me that he thought interrogations of Islamic State fighters captured on the battlefield was one of the best sources of intelligence for the coalition fighting the new war. "If we aren't talking to them," he said. "Then I think that's a problem."

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net