WASHINGTON — The United States is now relying heavily on foreign intelligence services to capture, interrogate and detain all but the highest-level terrorist suspects seized outside the battlefields ofIraq and Afghanistan, according to current and former American government officials.
The change represents a significant loosening of the reins for the United States, which has worked closely with allies to combat violent extremism since the 9/11 attacks but is now pushing that cooperation to new limits.
In the past 10 months, for example, about a half-dozen midlevel financiers and logistics experts working with Al Qaeda have been captured and are being held by intelligence services in four Middle Eastern countries after the United States provided information that led to their arrests by local security services, a former American counterterrorism official said.
In addition, Pakistan’s intelligence and security services captured a Saudi suspect and a Yemeni suspect this year with the help of American intelligence and logistical support, Pakistani officials said. The two are the highest-ranking Qaeda operatives captured sincePresident Obama took office, but they are still being held by Pakistan, which has shared information from their interrogations with the United States, the official said.
The current approach, which began in the last two years of the Bush administration and has gained momentum under Mr. Obama, is driven in part by court rulings and policy changes that have closed the secret prisons run by the Central Intelligence Agency, and all but ended the transfer of prisoners from outside Iraq and Afghanistan to American military prisons.
Human rights advocates say that relying on foreign governments to hold and question terrorist suspects could carry significant risks. It could increase the potential for abuse at the hands of foreign interrogators and could also yield bad intelligence, they say.
The fate of many terrorist suspects whom the Bush administration sent to foreign countries remains uncertain. One suspect, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, who was captured by the C.I.A. in late 2001 and sent to Libya, was recently reported to have died there in Libyan custody.
“As a practical matter you have to rely on partner governments, so the focus should be on pressing and assisting those governments to handle those cases professionally,” said Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch.
The United States itself has not detained any high-level terrorist suspects outside Iraq and Afghanistan since Mr. Obama took office, and the question of where to detain the most senior terrorist suspects on a long-term basis is being debated within the new administration. Even deciding where the two Qaeda suspects in Pakistani custody will be kept over the long term is “extremely, extremely sensitive right now,” a senior American military official said, adding, “They’re both bad dudes. The issue is: where do they get parked so they stay parked?”
How the United States is dealing with terrorism suspects beyond those already in the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, was a question Mr. Obama did not address in thespeech he gave Thursday about his antiterrorism policies. While he said he might seek to create a new system that would allow preventive detention inside the United States, the government currently has no obvious long-term detention center for imprisoning terrorism suspects without court oversight.
Mr. Obama has said he still intends to close the Guantánamo prison by January, despite misgivings in Congress, and the Supreme Court has ruled that inmates there may challenge their detention before federal judges. Some suspects are being imprisoned without charges at a United States air base in Afghanistan, but a federal court has ruled that at least some of them may also file habeas corpus lawsuits to challenge their detentions.
American officials say that in the last years of the Bush administration and now on Mr. Obama’s watch, the balance has shifted toward leaving all but the most high-level terrorist suspects in foreign rather than American custody. The United States has repatriated hundreds of detainees held at prisons in Cuba, Iraq and Afghanistan, but the current approach is different because it seeks to keep the prisoners out of American custody altogether.
How the United States deals with terrorism suspects remains a contentious issue in Congress.
Leon E. Panetta, the director of the C.I.A., said in February that the agency might continue its program of extraordinary rendition, in which captured terrorism suspects are transferred to other countries without extradition proceedings.
He said the C.I.A. would be likely to continue to transfer detainees from their place of capture to other countries, either their home countries or nations that intended to bring charges against them.
As a safeguard against torture, Mr. Panetta said, the United States would rely on diplomatic assurances of good treatment. The Bush administration sought the same assurances, which critics say are ineffective.
A half-dozen current and former American intelligence and counterterrorism officials and allied officials were interviewed for this article, but all spoke on the condition of anonymity because the detention and interrogation programs are classified.
Officials say the United States has learned so much about Al Qaeda and other militant groups since the 9/11 attacks that it can safely rely on foreign partners to detain and question more suspects. “It’s the preferred method now,” one former counterterrorism official said.
The Obama administration’s policies will probably become clearer after two task forces the president created in January report to him in July on detainee policy, interrogation techniques and extraordinary rendition.
In many instances now, allies are using information provided by the United States to pick up terrorism suspects on their own territory — including the two suspects seized in Pakistan this year.
The Saudi militant, Zabi al-Taifi, was picked up by Pakistani commandos in a dawn raid at a safe house outside Peshawar on Jan. 22, an operation conducted with the help of the C.I.A.
A Pakistani official said the Yemeni suspect, Abu Sufyan al-Yemeni, was a Qaeda paramilitary commander who was on C.I.A. and Pakistani lists of the top 20 Qaeda operatives. He was believed to be a conduit for communications between Qaeda leaders in Pakistan and cells in East Africa, Iran, Yemen and elsewhere. American and Pakistani intelligence officials say they believe that Mr. Yemeni, who was arrested Feb. 24 by Pakistani authorities in Quetta, helped arrange travel and training for Qaeda operatives from various parts of the Muslim world to the Pakistani tribal areas.
He is now in the custody of Pakistan’s main spy agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, but his fate is unclear. The Pakistani official said that he would remain in Pakistani hands, but that it would be difficult to try him because the evidence against him came from informers.
American officials said the United States would still take custody of the most senior Qaeda operatives captured in the future. As a model, they cited the case of Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, an Iraqi Kurd who is said to have joined Al Qaeda in the late 1990s and risen to become a top aide to Osama bin Laden, and who was captured by a foreign security service in 2006. He was handed over to the C.I.A., which transferred him to Guantánamo Bay in April 2007. He was one of the last detainees shipped there.