Interrogation of terror suspect plays out aboard Navy ship

Aboard a Navy warship, U.S. investigators are likely playing good cop/bad cop, shouting and banging their hands on a table to get suspected al-Qaida operative Abu Anas al-Libi to give up key intelligence. That’s what they’re allowed to do, anyway. What interrogators shouldn’t be doing is putting a hood over al-Libi’s head, waterboarding him or depriving him of food.

The Obama administration would only say that al-Libi was being treated “humanely” as he is held on the USS San Antonio after he was captured in a raid in Libya over the weekend. A team of U.S. investigators from the military, intelligence agencies and the Justice Department has been sent to question him, two law enforcement officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the ongoing operation.

“We know that al-Libi planned and helped execute plots that killed hundreds of people,” Obama told a news conference Tuesday. “We have strong evidence of that, and he will be brought to justice.”

While the U.S. once held people in secret prisons, questioned them over long periods of time, put duct tape over their eyes or forced them to strip naked, the Obama administration has swapped the secret “black sites” for battleships, acknowledged the capture and detention of a wanted terrorist and promised to stick to approved interrogation tactics like making sure the detainee has four hours of continuous sleep in a 24-hour period.

Al-Libi is being detained in military custody under the law of war, which means he can be captured and held indefinitely as an enemy combatant. He has long been sought for his role in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa and has been under indictment since 2000.

“For the most part, the Obama administration has made positive steps, banned the most abusive techniques and prohibited torture,” said Laura Pitter, counterterrorism adviser at Human Rights Watch. But some of the 19 allowed techniques defined in the Army Field Manual can still be problematic, she said. And, Pitter said, al-Libi should be brought to federal court to face his charges.

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said al-Libi is being treated humanely.

“The president made it clear when he came into office that some of the tactics that had been used in previous years weren’t going to be used anymore,” Harf said. Those tactics include hooding prisoners, stripping them naked and forcing them to perform or mimic sexual acts, beating or electrocuting them or subjecting them to mock executions.

But the approved techniques are only good if there is good supervision, said Steve Kleinman, a former U.S. military senior interrogator.

“The more we keep it hidden and the more we make it look like a dark art, that’s the impression we’re going to give the world,” Kleinman said.

Some Republicans in Congress, however, say the allowed techniques don’t go far enough, and al-Libi should be sent to Guantanamo Bay for indefinite questioning.

It was unclear if or when al-Libi would be brought to the U.S. to face charges.

The Obama administration publicly debuted the naval ship interrogation tactic in 2011 when it captured Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame, a Somali citizen who the U.S. government said helped support and train al-Qaida-linked militants. Warsame was questioned aboard a U.S. warship for two months before he went to New York to face terrorism charges. He pleaded guilty earlier this year and agreed to tell the FBI what he knew about terror threats and, if necessary, testify for the government.

The interrogators sent to question al-Libi are part the same group that questioned Warsame — the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group. The Obama administration created the group of interrogators in 2009 to juggle the need to extract intelligence from captured suspected terrorists and preserve evidence for a criminal trial.

Under interrogation, Warsame gave up what officials called important intelligence about al-Qaida in Yemen and its relationship with al-Shabab militants in Somalia. Because those sessions were conducted before Warsame was read his Miranda rights, the intelligence could be used to underpin military strikes or CIA actions but were not admissible in court. After that interrogation was complete, the FBI stepped in and started the questioning over in a way that could be used in court.

After the FBI read Warsame his rights, he opted to keep talking for days, helping the government build its case.

The Obama administration’s detention strategy — defined in actions only — has raised some questions about using “law of war” powers to circumvent the safeguards of the U.S. criminal justice system.

“It appears to be an attempt to use assertion of law of war powers to avoid constraint and safeguards in the criminal justice system,” said Hina Shamsi, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union and the director of the civil rights organization’s national security project. “I am very troubled if this is the pattern that the administration is setting for itself.”