March 12th, 2010
05:18 PM ET

What is the HIG?

The debate over the questioning of accused terrorist Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab rages on between Democrats and Republicans. John Brennan, White House adviser on homeland security, slammed Republican critics - saying that GOP leaders knew, or should have known, that AbdulMutallab would be read his Miranda rights. These comments did not sit well with Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Michigan, ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee. Hoekstra said Brennan told him that AbdulMutallab was in FBI custody.

Pressed by CNN's Wolf Blitzer, Hoekstra said that being in FBI custody did not necessarily mean AbdulMutallab would be read his Miranda rights. Rather, he said he took it to mean the FBI's "high-value interrogation group would decide whether or not this person would be mirandized ... and whether they would go through the civilian process or be put into a military tribunal."

Fact Check: Is Hoekstra correct in his characterization that the high-value interrogation group has the power to make a determination about which court system will handle a suspect?

- The Obama administration announced the creation of the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group, or HIG, in August of 2009. The group incorporates personnel from the Department of Defense, the intelligence community and law enforcement agencies. The group is primarily focused on intelligence gathering. The HIG became operational in late January.

- CNN reached out to the White House and asked whether HIG is authorized to give Miranda warnings and if HIG can make decisions about the treatment of a suspect. White House spokesman Ben LaBolt said "no" on both counts.

- Director of National Security Dennis Blair suggested otherwise during a Senate hearing: "That 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." He issued a statement the same day, clarifying that the HIG was not yet fully operational and adding: "The FBI interrogated Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab when they took him into custody. They received important intelligence at that time."

- According to Fran Townsend, a Bush administration homeland security adviser and a CNN national security analyst, the group does not have the authority to decide whether a suspected terrorist gets put in military or civilian custody. HIG could offer recommendations, Townsend said, but the decisions would be made at higher levels.

- The responsibility to read a suspect his Miranda rights is a tactical one, according to former Navy lawyer Charles Swift. In the civilian context, when a suspect is in custody, the Miranda rights must be read in order for the information gained to be admissible in court. "There is nothing beyond the desire for admissible information to compel interrogators to administer Miranda rights," Swift said.

Bottom Line:

Hoekstra is right in saying that being in FBI custody doesn't automatically mean that a suspect will be read his Miranda rights. But Hoekstra is wrong in saying that HIG could decide whether a suspect should be read those rights.

- CNN's Tim Lister, Carol Cratty and Pam Benson contributed to this report

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