TIME intelligence

Senate Torture Report Describes CIA Interrogation Program

Senate Democrats say the methods were illegal and ineffective

Thirteen years after the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. by the terrorist group al Qaeda, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released a 500-page assessment of the program of harsh interrogation and detention used by the Central Intelligence Agency from 2002 to 2007 on more than a hundred members of the terrorist organization after their capture.

Based on 6.2 million pages of documents, photos and other CIA files, the report presents evidence that the agency’s interrogation methods were brutal and possibly illegal, that they were poorly managed, and that the agency misrepresented it to the White House, the Justice Department, Congress and the American people. Ultimately, the Senate Democrats conclude the methods used were not effective, and were not worth the costs to reputation and national security that resulted from the program.

Aspects of the detention and interrogation of al Qaeda suspects, according to the report, included: a detainee becoming unconscious during the simulated drowning technique known as waterboarding, requiring medical attention as he regurgitated air and water; a detainee dying from exposure to extreme cold shackled to the floor in what government observers later described as a dungeon; detainees’ injuries being allowed to deteriorate as part of interrogation; and psychological effects from interrogation including hallucinations, paranoia, self-harm and self-mutilation. The report also finds the CIA at times lost detainees and discovered them only after days of neglect.

President Barack Obama said the report detailed a “troubling” program and showed that “some of the actions that were taken were contrary to our values.”

“That is why I unequivocally banned torture when I took office, because one of our most effective tools in fighting terrorism and keeping Americans safe is staying true to our ideals at home and abroad,” Obama said in a statement.

“These techniques did significant damage to America’s standing in the world and made it harder to pursue our interests with allies and partners,” Obama added. “That is why I will continue to use my authority as President to make sure we never resort to those methods again.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the Democratic chair of the intelligence committee who has spent years fighting CIA and Republican resistance to producing and releasing the report previously said, “If the Senate can declassify this report, we will be able to ensure that an un-American, brutal program of detention and interrogation will never again be considered or permitted.”

Current and former intelligence officials, and Republican members of Congress strongly dispute the characterization of the program and the CIA’s actions, arguing that it produced much of the information that led to the successful efforts by the Bush and Obama administrations to roll back the central leadership of al Qaeda. Republican members of the intelligence committee released at the same time a 100-plus page minority report dissenting with some of the findings and conclusions of the Democrat’s document.

The CIA also released a summary of its response to the SSCI report rebutting many of the findings. Of the 20 cases the SSCI report cites to show the CIA program was ineffective, the agency disagrees with all but two. “We acknowledge that the detention and interrogation program had shortcomings and that the Agency made mistakes,” said CIA Director John Brennan. Brennan said the interrogation of detainees “did produce intelligence that helped thwart attack plans, capture terrorists, and save lives.” The agency argues that it is impossible to say whether the harsh techniques produced intelligence that would otherwise have been obtained through less harsh methods. Brennan said the SSCI report provides an “incomplete and selective picture of what occurred.”

The report is likely to produce extended political battles over what information was known about the CIA program, by whom and at what time. The report finds evidence that both the CIA and some at the White House took steps to limit questions about the legality of the program and the number of senior Bush administration officials who were aware of it. It finds that President Bush first learned of the details of the interrogation techniques in 2006 and appeared uncomfortable with some of them, including the image of a prisoner shackled and having to go to the bathroom on himself.

The underlying question that authors and opponents of the report both would like to see settled in the debate is whether the techniques described in the report should ever be used again. Vice President Dick Cheney, former CIA director Michael Hayden, and many others argue that it was legal, effective and crucial in the fight against terrorism. Feinstein, President Obama, and many outside human rights groups say the techniques were wrong and crossed the line into torture, violating core American values.

TIME torture

How to Read the Senate Torture Report

Avoiding the politics, finding the facts

More than 10 years after the last al Qaeda operative was waterboarded, the Senate intelligence committee is set to release parts of its 6,000-page report on the CIA’s use of so-called “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” (EITs) on senior al Qaeda figures in the years after 9/11.

The report will put new facts on the table about what the CIA did and will draw conclusions about whether it was worth it. Ideally, the new facts would produce a national conversation, maybe even a consensus, about how far America should go to get its enemies to talk.

Instead, we’re likely to get a battle over the barely-concealed political interests of current and past public figures. Here’s what to look for in the report, how to put it in context, and how to avoid becoming an unwitting surrogate for someone else’s arguments.

What Was Done?

The report will contain new details about the “brutality” of the EIT program, says a senior Senate aide. The first thing to look at will be these details. Previous government reports have shown how the approved techniques—waterboarding, sleep deprivation, “walling”, among others—were actually implemented. But the Senate staff had access to over 6.2 million pages of operational cables, internal emails, memos and other documents from the CIA. That means Senate Democrats saw pretty much everything—good, bad and ugly—that was ever written by the CIA on the program and what happened in the rooms where it was implemented.

Democrats, including some who approved the EIT program, will say they never thought it would be implemented in such a brutal way. Those involved in the program will argue the excesses are exaggerated, and that Democrats signed off on everything. The Obama administration’s CIA will try to find a safe middle ground.

The important thing is to establish exactly what was done and whether it crossed a moral or legal line. Here’s the anti-torture statute, and here are some arguments for and against the legality and morality of the EIT program.

Was it worth it?

The answer to that question should depend on whether the EIT program advanced the government’s duty to protect citizens without breaking U.S. laws or undermining the core American and enlightenment values they are based on.

Instead, the debate will likely focus on whether the EIT program led to the killing of Osama Bin Laden. That argument was launched within hours of Bin Laden’s death here at TIME, and has continued ever since, but the report will put new facts about the case on the table. In particular, it will reveal new details on detainees subjected to the EIT program who provided information about the Bin Laden courier, Abu Ahmed, in whose house in Pakistan the Saudi was staying.

As McClatchy reported last spring, the committee will conclude “The CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques did not effectively assist the agency in acquiring intelligence or in gaining cooperation from detainees.” The report will also say the CIA inflated the value of the intelligence to justify the brutal methods it had used. Opponents of the report will say Hill Democrats are playing down the value of the information gained from the EIT program in order to say the whole program was a mistake. The Obama CIA will say no one can know whether the EIT program made a difference.

Bin Laden’s death at the hands of U.S. forces is not a great measure of the value of the EIT program. His killing probably has more to do with justice and accountability than with national security; most counterterrorism experts will tell you that, by the time he died, Bin Laden was a largely symbolic figure with very limited operational significance as a terrorist leader. He definitely wasn’t a ticking time-bomb.

To judge whether the EIT program was worth its costs, it’s better to look at the totality of the program and the totality of the result. This has been tough to do until now. The report will make it possible to assess—Democrats say, debunk—claims that U.S. success against al Qaeda threats came largely thanks to the EIT program. It will also make it possible to gauge assertions that torture cost the U.S. more than it gained, including perhaps pushing the country to go to war in Iraq.

Who Screwed Up?

Here’s where the politics will get hottest. All sides agree that things went wrong with the EIT program, but who’s to blame is where the loudest voices will be.

The Senate Democrats will assert that the CIA’s leaders deceived everyone from the Bush White House to the Bush Justice Department to both parties on Capitol Hill. CIA officials involved in the EIT program will allege Congressional Democrats pursued the entire review of the program to protect themselves from the fact that they approved it to begin with. George W. Bush will not take the opportunity to throw the CIA under the bus, the New York Times reports.

The report may restart a discussion about accountability: the State Department reportedly expects questions about whether the U.S. government will reopen investigations into the program and the effort to keep it secret. Bush-era intelligence officials say they have already dealt with the program’s mistakes and the Obama administration says it investigated those involved and found no reason to bring criminal charges.

What effect will assigning blame have? The CIA says it is so burned by the EIT program that it is permanently out of the business of interrogation and Dianne Feinstein, the hawkish head of the Senate Intelligence committee, says that’s fine. The purpose of her report, she says, is to ensure such a program is never again acceptable to Americans.

But plenty of others, from ex-CIA officer Jose Rodriguez, to former Vice President Dick Cheney, to former CIA chief Michael Hayden, say the program should be available for use if there is another major attack on the U.S. Even Obama’s CIA chief says only that the EIT program is not now “appropriate,” suggesting it might be in other circumstances.

Ultimately, the report’s value lies in answering that simple question: should we ever do it again?

TIME Crime

Why a Medical Examiner Called Eric Garner’s Death a ‘Homicide’

Eric Garner Police Brutality Death
Ramsey Orta

The word doesn't mean the same thing to medical examiners

New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo killed Eric Garner on July 17 when he grabbed him by the neck and, with other officers, threw him to the ground and pinned him there. But did he commit homicide? And if so, was it a crime?

Everyone from Charles Barkley to Judge Andrew Napolitano has weighed in with an opinion on the matter. The resulting confusion has the potential to take the hard, painful question of equal justice in America and make it harder and more painful.

The key to clearing up the confusion is to understand the difference between two uses of the word “homicide” and to focus not on the medical cause of Garner’s death but on Pantaleo’s behavior.

On Aug. 1, a New York City medical examiner determined that the cause of death in the Garner case was “homicide,” specifically the neck compressions from the Pantaleo’s chokehold and “the compression of [Garner’s] chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police,” according to spokeswoman, Julie Bolcer.

But “homicide” in this context doesn’t mean what you think. It’s one of five categories medical examiners use to label causes of death and it indicates that “someone’s intentional actions led to the death of another person,” says Gregory G. Davis, president of the National Association of Medical Examiners. The other four labels are suicide, accident, natural, and undetermined, Davis says.

So in a medical examiner’s report “homicide” just means one person intentionally did something that led to the death of someone else. It doesn’t mean the death was intentional and it doesn’t mean it was a crime.

Criminally negligent homicide, on the other hand, is a class E felony in New York State. Someone who commits it can go to jail for around one to four years. A lot of things are class E felonies in New York State, like arson, computer trespass, auto stripping and residential mortgage fraud.

Was Pantaleo criminally negligent in killing Garner? He was, according to New York State law, if he failed “to perceive a substantial and unjustifiable risk” that Garner would die from his actions, and that failure was “a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would observe in the situation.”

Nobody should dispute that Pantaleo committed homicide—that fact was determined Aug. 1. Was Pantaleo’s behavior a gross deviation from the standard of care that a police officer should take when confronting an unarmed father of six whom he suspects may have been selling cigarettes illegally? Napolitano and many others who have watched the video of Garner’s killing think Pantaleo’s behavior was criminally negligent. The Staten Island grand jury apparently did not.

As to the confusion about the different uses of “homicide,” why don’t medical examiners try using a different word to indicate someone has killed someone else so that it doesn’t get mistaken for a legal judgment?

“There are only so many words that we have,” says the National Association of Medical Examiner’s Davis.

TIME justice

Obama Mulls Replacements for Holder

Attorney General Eric Holder Announces Civil Rights Investigation Into Michael Brown Death
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announces a Justice Department 'patterns and practice' investigation of the Ferguson, Missouri, police department during a news conference at the department's headquarters Sept. 4, 2014 in Washington, DC. Chip Somodevilla—Getty Images

The President announced Eric Holder will remain in office until a successor is confirmed

The White House is already working with a narrow list of possible successors to outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder, Democratic sources familiar with the selection process tell TIME.

The candidates include former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Washington State Jenny Durkan, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, Deputy Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, and former Associate Attorney General Tony West, the Democratic sources say.

President Barack Obama has not yet decided whom he will choose to succeed Holder, White House officials say, and Holder will stay in office until a successor is confirmed by the Senate. The sources caution that the list of seven names is not exhaustive, and that some on it are being more seriously considered than others. The White House has initiated a formal selection process run by a team that will include White House Counsel Neil Eggleston and will involve interviews and background checks both for security and for political viability.

That latter consideration will be important as the Administration intends to bring the nominee up for Senate consideration during the lame-duck session after the midterm elections in November. Already Republicans, including the ranking minority member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), have said the confirmation process should be put off until January, when a new, possibly Republican-led Senate convenes.

That is unlikely, though.

“This is a high-priority position; it’s important not just for the President in terms of offering some advice and counsel, it also is important to the country in terms of enforcing our laws,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Thursday afternoon. “So this is something that will get a fair amount of attention and I’m confident that whoever is nominated to this position will be the kind of candidate that deserves bipartisan support in the Senate.”

But in a sign of how cold relations between the White House and Hill Republicans have become, an aide to Grassley said the senator was not informed of Holder’s imminent resignation before the announcement Thursday, and as of 6 p.m. that evening, he had not been contacted by the Administration. An aide to Senate Judiciary Committee’s Democratic chairman, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, said the senator and Holder had spoken “in the last couple of days.”

It is unclear whether the White House intends to consult Republicans as part of the process of selecting a nominee. Holder’s predecessor, Attorney General Michael Mukasey, was picked by then-President George W. Bush after lengthy discussions with Senate Democrats, though the circumstances were quite different. In the wake of the scandal surrounding the politically-motivated firing of federal prosecutors by then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, the Bush White House had secret conversations with powerful Democrats, who controlled the Senate. One Democratic aide then on the Judiciary Committee said Bush’s White House counsel Fred Fielding consulted Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) over possible successors and that Sen. Harry Reid (R-Nev.) rejected one candidate, former Solicitor General Ted Olson. Both sides eventually settled on Mukasey.

The candidates this time represent a fairly broad cross section of legal backgrounds. Two have limited experience on national security matters. At least one has a rocky record of confirmation in the Senate.

Perez faced a tough battle in the Senate to become Labor Secretary, getting confirmed 54-46 on a party-line vote after overcoming a GOP filibuster. Mayorkas was confirmed as Homeland deputy last December after heading the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services; he was previously a U.S. attorney in California during the Clinton administration. Napolitano served as Obama’s Homeland Security secretary from 2009-13. Durkan has said she intends to step down as the top prosecutor in Seattle this month; she prosecuted financial and national security cases. Bharara has successfully pursued scores of insider trading cases on Wall Street and several high profile national security cases. Verrilli is the Administration’s top lawyer at the Supreme Court and argued high-profile cases including the successful defense of Obamacare. West stepped down Sept. 15 as the No. 3 Justice Department official after successfully winning more than $30 billion in settlements from Wall Street banks in the wake of the financial crisis.

TIME Barack Obama

Obama’s Anti-ISIS War in Syria May Be Illegal

U.S. President Obama speaks on the phone with Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah from the Oval Office of the White House in Washington
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks on the phone with Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, before giving a speech to the nation regarding the fight against ISIS, from the Oval Office of the White House, in Washington on Sept. 10, 2014. Kevin Lamarque—Reuters

Obama is relying on questionable legal authority in his pursuit of terrorists, but that never stopped George W. Bush.

If truth is the first casualty of war, law is apparently the last, at least for President Barack Obama.

Obama came to office declaring his determination to reimpose legal limits on the American effort to defeat al Qaeda. He swore to close Guantanamo Bay, abolish torture, tighten rules for the treatment of terrorist prisoners and rein in the broad executive power President George W. Bush had claimed in the global hunt for terrorists.

But after five-and-a-half years of near-constant terrorist brush fires in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, and a Congress that remains largely unwilling to update key counterterrorism legislation, Obama appears finally to have surrendered to a very loose legal definition of where and when he can use military force against terrorists.

In his prime time speech Wednesday evening, Obama told Americans he was expanding attacks against the group calling itself the “Islamic State”, also known as ISIS or ISIL, by targeting its fighters not just in Iraq but also in Syria. “I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria as well as Iraq,” Obama said, “This is a core principle of my presidency: If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.”

Strategically, that makes sense. Speaking to reporters before Obama’s speech, a senior administration official explained, “ISIL is moving with impunity back and forth from Syria to Iraq, and vice versa, each time and from each place gaining arms, gaining manpower, gaining fuel, literally and figuratively, for their fight.”

Legally, however, Obama’s authority to attack ISIS in Syria is on shaky ground. Under the Constitution, Congress decides if and when the U.S. goes to war. In 2002, it authorized President George W. Bush to attack Iraq. That authorization, broadly interpreted, can be read to include the threat ISIS now poses there. But it doesn’t apply to Syria, at least not easily. And the Obama Administration announced this summer that it was no longer using the 2002 authorization to justify its actions.

Instead, Obama claims he has authority to bomb ISIS in Syria under the Sept. 14, 2001 authorization from Congress following the 9/11 attacks. In the call with reporters, Obama’s senior administration official said, “We believe that he can rely on the 2001 AUMF [Authorization for Use of Military Force] as statutory authority for the military airstrike operations he is directing against ISIL.”

That joint resolution gave the president the power to “use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.”

A variety of legal scholars on the left and the right, including Obama himself, have argued that authorization is too broad and needs to be rewritten so it doesn’t give eternal war-fighting power to all future presidents. And as Jack Goldsmith writes for TIME today, it’s a stretch for Obama to claim it applies to ISIS, given that ISIS and al Qaeda split earlier this year.

According to a 2012 speech by Jeh Johnson, the Secretary of Homeland Security who previously served as Obama’s top lawyer at the Department of Defense, there are two characteristics that a group must have to be considered an “associated force” with al Qaeda under the 2001 authorization. First they must be “an organized, armed group that has entered the fight alongside al Qaeda,” and second, the group “is a co-belligerent with al Qaeda in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners.” The White House has yet to release to Congress or the public any detailed analysis of their determination that the Islamic state meets these standards.

If Obama is breaking the law, don’t expect much to come of it in the short term. The consequences of Obama’s legal interpretation, beyond his own discomfort, are not likely very great. The Bush administration showed the bar for legally constraining presidential counterterrorist actions is high, and even when it is surmounted there are little or no penalties. Politically, the president has nothing to fear: no matter how angry they are about the new effort against ISIS, the left wing of Obama’s party isn’t going to impeach him, and the right won’t either, at least not for going after Islamic extremists.

In the long term, perhaps Obama’s legal legerdemain will boost those who want to come up with new, clearer legal frameworks for international counterterrorism operations. But for now Obama, like Bush before him, seems determined to act without them.

TIME White House

Understanding the ISIS Threat to Americans at Home

Resident of Tabqa city touring the streets on a motorcycle waves Islamist flag in celebration after Islamic State militants took over Tabqa air base, in nearby Raqqa city
A resident of Tabqa city touring the streets on a motorcycle waves an Islamist flag in celebration after Islamic State militants took over Tabqa air base, in nearby Raqqa city, Syria, on Aug. 24, 2014 Stringer—Reuters

Obama makes his case for increasing attacks on the Islamic extremist group

President Barack Obama will tell the country Wednesday why he is stepping up military action against the terrorist group that calls itself the “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria”, also known as ISIS or ISIL. His biggest challenge may be reconciling for war weary Americans his administration’s conflicting messages about whether the group poses an immediate homeland threat to the United States.

On the one hand, Attorney General Eric Holder has said western fighters joining ISIS and returning home radicalized are the national security danger he worries about most. “We are seeing, I would say, an alarming rise in the number of American and European Union nationals who have been going to Syria to help extremist groups,” Holder told TIME last month. “This represents a grave threat to our security,” he said.

But in a thorough presentation on Sept. 3 at the Brookings Institution, outgoing director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Matthew Olsen, presented a less scary picture. ISIS has no cells in the U.S., Olsen said, “full stop.” Further, Olsen said, “we have no credible information” that the group “is planning to attack the U.S.” ISIS, Olsen said “is not al Qaeda pre-9/11.”

So is the group a direct threat to Americans at home, and is Obama right to increase military action against the group?

Holder says the danger comes from the combination of westerners joining ISIS and the expert bomb-makers working for the al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). It is not clear what if any evidence exists of such collaboration yet. On the one hand, AQAP has issued statements in support of ISIS, and both groups are active in Syria and Iraq; on the other, al Qaeda and ISIS split in the last year after a debate over tactics and territory.

Several senior administration officials tell TIME they have seen no evidence of direct contact between individual members of AQAP and ISIS.

That said, ISIS doesn’t have to threaten Americans at home to warrant military action against them abroad, U.S. officials argue. The group’s military successes in Syria and Iraq threaten U.S. and European interests in the Middle East, Obama says. “We did an assessment on the ground,” Obama told Meet The Press on Sept. 7, and concluded that to protect American personnel and diplomatic facilities the U.S. needed “to launch air strikes to ensure that towns like Erbil were not overrun, critical infrastructure, like the Mosul Dam was protected, and that we were able to engage in key humanitarian assistance programs that have saved thousands of lives.”

And the potential threat of ISIS targeting the U.S. in the future is real, administration officials say. More conservative observers like Olsen agree that it is better to go on the offensive against ISIS now than to risk them becoming a bigger threat to Americans later. “ISIL poses a multi-faceted threat to the United States,” Olsen said at Brookings, and it “views the U.S. as a strategic enemy.” He says ISIS, “has the potential to use its safe haven to plan and coordinate attacks in Europe and the U.S.” Foreign fighters joining ISIS, “are likely to gain experience and training and eventually to return to their home countries battle-hardened and further radicalized,” Olsen says.

“Allowed to proceed on the path they’re on, in other words, left unchecked, they would turn their sights more to the West and potentially to the United States,” Olsen says. That, presumably, is the case Obama will make to the American people on Wednesday evening.

TIME justice

Why Holder’s Probe Won’t Fix Ferguson

National Guard Called In As Unrest Continues In Ferguson
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder appeared with Capt. Ron Johnson at Drake's Place Restaurant in Ferguson on Aug. 20, 2014. Holder's visit was meant to calm tensions after almost 10 days of protests. Pablo Martinez Monsivais—Pool/Getty Images

Not all investigations are created equal, and this one is tackling a big problem with small tools

Is the Ferguson police department racist?

Nearly a month after the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager at the hands of a white police officer, that question is going to get an official answer, as Attorney General Eric Holder has announced a broad investigation into whether the cops in Ferguson, Mo. engaged in a pattern or practice of civil rights violations over the years.

But not all investigations are created equal, and the new DOJ probe may not deliver the kind of results that last month’s impassioned demonstrators were looking for.

The Department already has a targeted probe into the shooting of the teenager, Michael Brown, by the police officer, Darren Wilson. That investigation is designed to answer the narrow question of whether Wilson broke the law by shooting and killing Brown. The first step in the process of answering that question will come when a grand jury decides whether or not to indict Wilson; the final step would be a trial jury’s determination of his guilt or innocence.

For all the power of that criminal probe, though, Wilson’s fate won’t fix Ferguson, one way or the other. Unfortunately for that struggling suburb, it is unlikely Holder’s new civil rights investigation will either.

The new investigation is being undertaken by the Civil Rights Division’s Special Litigation Section. It doesn’t prosecute crimes–there’s a separate criminal section in the division designed to help prosecutors do that. Instead, among other things, the Special Litigation Section seeks settlements and court orders to require systemically discriminatory police departments to improve their behavior. It gets them to do that by imposing reforms like increased transparency and data collection, fostering community-police partnerships, reviewing uses of force and providing training and supervision.

Which is not to say such steps aren’t useful. Holder today called the work of the Special Litigation Section “historic” and said the department has opened 20 such investigations in the last five years, and is enforcing 14 agreements with law enforcement organizations.

But even if the new investigation does find systemic discrimination in Ferguson, and even if it does lead to a settlement or a court order, that will amount to one small step in the beleaguered community’s efforts to rebuild and reform.

TIME justice

Justice Department Steps Up Ferguson Involvement

President Obama Press Briefing
President Barack Obama speaks about the unrest in Ferguson, Mo. while on vacation in Edgartown, Mass. on Aug. 14, 2014. Rick Friedman—Pool/Getty Images

In an effort to defuse tensions in Ferguson, Mo., the Justice Department has increased its involvement on the ground.

The Justice Department upped its involvement in the situation in Ferguson, Mo. Thursday, deploying advisers to local law enforcement, mediating between local faith leaders and government authorities and deploying the head of the criminal section of the department’s civil rights division to the scene.

Attorney General Eric Holder added rhetorical support to the moves Thursday afternoon from Martha’s Vineyard, where he is vacationing with President Barack Obama. In a statement, Holder suggested local law enforcement might be heightening tensions and that forces in Ferguson are insufficiently diverse.

“The law enforcement response to these demonstrations must seek to reduce tensions, not heighten them,” Holder said. Referring to discussions that took place this morning between civic leaders and law enforcement officials, mediated by members of the Justice Department’s Community Relations Service, Holder said, “Over time, these conversations should consider the role that increased diversity in law enforcement can play in helping to build trust within communities.”

Federal officials investigating the death of Michael Brown, the young man whose shooting Saturday at the hands of local cops triggered the unrest, have interviewed a friend, Dorian Johnson, who says he witnessed the shooting, a person familiar with the investigation says. A lawyer for Johnson told MSNBC that local law enforcement officials weren’t interested in hearing his account of the shooting.

The Justice department has dispatched policy advisers to provide “technical assistance” to local law enforcement, Holder said. The officials will not play a direct role in crowd control, but rather are intended to provide advice and oversight—essentially federal supervision—to local law enforcement as they try to decrease tensions and maintain order.

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