The agency has stopped trying to detain or interrogate suspects caught abroad, except those captured in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He's considered one of world's most dangerous terrorism suspects, and the U.S. offered a $1-million reward for his capture in 2005. Intelligence experts say he's a master bomb maker and extremist leader who possesses a wealth of information about Al Qaeda-linked groups in Southeast Asia.
Yet the U.S. has made no move to interrogate or seek custody of Indonesian militant Umar Patek since he was apprehended this year by officials in Pakistan with the help of a CIA tip, U.S. and Pakistani officials say.
The little-known case highlights a sharp difference between President Obama's counter-terrorism policy and that of his predecessor, George W. Bush. Under Obama, the CIA has killed more people than it has captured, mainly through drone missile strikes in Pakistan's tribal areas. At the same time, it has stopped trying to detain or interrogate suspects caught abroad, except those captured in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"The CIA is out of the detention and interrogation business," said a U.S. official who is familiar with intelligence operations but was not authorized to speak publicly.
Several factors are behind the change.
Widespread criticism of Bush administration interrogation and detention policies as brutal and degrading led Obama to stop sending suspected terrorists to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Public exposure also forced the CIA to close a network of secret prisons. That left U.S. officials with no obvious place to hold new captives.
In January 2009, Obama ordered the CIA to abide by the interrogation rules of the U.S. Army Field Manual, which guides military interrogators and includes prohibitions on the use of physical force against detainees. Critics warn that Al Qaeda operatives could study the manual, which is available on the Internet, to learn how to resist its techniques, although no evidence has emerged suggesting that has happened.
In addition, some CIA officers are spooked by a long-running criminal investigation by a Washington special prosecutor into whether CIA officers broke the law by conducting brutal interrogations of suspected terrorists during the Bush administration.
"Given the enormous headaches involved … it's not surprising there are fewer people coming into our hands," said Paul Pillar, a former senior CIA official.
Patek, described by intelligence officials and analysts as a central figure among Islamic extremists in Southeast Asia, could reveal links between Al Qaeda sympathizers across the region. He is a prime suspect in the 2002 nightclub bombings that killed 202 people on the Indonesian island of Bali.
In the years after the Bali bombings, Patek is believed to have led a terrorist cell in the Philippines, where U.S. Special Forces have helped the military hunt Islamic militants on Mindanao island for years, said Sidney Jones, a Jakarta-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, an independent nonprofit organization that studies conflicts.
Patek's information "would be a gold mine" to U.S. intelligence, she said.
Pakistani officials say they plan to deliver Patek to authorities in Indonesia, where he is wanted in the Bali case. Although seven Americans were among those killed in the bombings, no U.S. criminal charges are pending against him, a senior Justice Department official said.
A Pakistani intelligence source said no one from the CIA or any other U.S. agency had asked to question Patek.
U.S. officials say they expect the CIA will be given access to intelligence gleaned from Indonesia's interrogations of Patek, and may even be allowed to sit in and provide guidance, given the close ties between U.S. and Indonesian counter-terrorism officials.
But that is not the same as controlling the questioning, critics say. "Having access to someone in someone else's custody is never the same as setting the conditions of their interrogation," said a congressional aide who is briefed on intelligence issues but who was not authorized to speak publicly.
Senior Republican lawmakers say the U.S. may be giving up valuable intelligence by not acting more aggressively to detain and question suspects captured overseas.
"It is a shame that our administration has made the decision to defer to others to pursue the detention and interrogation of our enemies," said Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee. "Now we'll have to rely on a foreign government to grant us access to this terrorist to obtain vital intelligence, if we're lucky."
Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, said: "The tangled mess of legal and policy issues surrounding detention right now makes it very difficult, if not impossible, to gain complete access for questioning. This forces us to work through the host country, which is not always optimal for a number of reasons."
CIA spokesman George Little defended the policy, saying the agency has a "wide range of effective capabilities at our disposal to pursue terrorists and thwart their activities. Our efforts in recent years have led to a number of counter-terrorism successes that have saved lives."
The current rules may be flexible in any case. At a hearing in February, Chambliss asked CIA Director Leon E. Panetta what would happen if the U.S. caught Osama bin Laden or his top aide, Ayman Zawahiri. Both men are believed to be hiding in Pakistan.
"We would probably move them quickly into military jurisdiction" for questioning at Bagram air base in Afghanistan, "and then eventually move them probably to Guantanamo," Panetta replied.
James R. Clapper, director of national intelligence, quickly added that the question had not been resolved, however.
That indecision has led to frustration in one recent case.
In February 2010, the CIA helped Pakistani intelligence officers arrest Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban's military leader, in Karachi. U.S. officials describe him as the most senior Taliban figure captured since the Afghanistan war began in 2001.
Baradar remains in Pakistani custody, and CIA officers are not satisfied with their access to him, according to two U.S. officials who have been briefed on the matter.
"We just don't have something in place that works" outside Iraq and Afghanistan, said Louis Tucker, former staff director of the Senate Intelligence Committee. "We're kind of just flying by the seat of our pants."
*Times staff writer Alex Rodriguez in Islamabad, Pakistan, contributed to this report.