The situation surrounding our government's handling of Abdulmutallab, the Christmas Undiebomber trained and armed by al Qaeda, has gone from bad to scandalous with the recent revelations regarding the inner workings of those agencies charged with counterterrorism. As a result of these revelations, we now know that:
Nine years after 9-11, Obama has, for all practical purposes, reduced our ability to interrogate al Qaeda operatives for actionable intelligence, to something approaching zero.
As a threshold matter, intelligence gleaned from captured enemy combatants has been far and away our most important source of actionable intelligence in the war on terror. Yet a recent AP article recounts that the FBI questioned the Undiebomber for less then two hours in toto before reading him his rights. [Update: Former CIA Chief Michael Hayden expands on this in a WaPo op-ed:
. . . In the 50 minutes the FBI had to question him, agents reportedly got actionable intelligence. Good. But were there any experts on al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in the room (other than Abdulmutallab)? Was there anyone intimately familiar with any National Security Agency raw traffic to, from or about the captured terrorist? Did they have a list or photos of suspected recruits?
When questioning its detainees, the CIA routinely turns the information provided over to its experts for verification and recommendations for follow-up. The responses of these experts -- "Press him more on this, he knows the details" or "First time we've heard that" -- helps set up more detailed questioning.
None of that happened in Detroit. In fact, we ensured that it wouldn't. After the first session, the FBI Mirandized Abdulmutallab and -- to preserve a potential prosecution -- sent in a "clean team" of agents who could have no knowledge of what Abdulmutallab had provided before he was given his constitutional warnings. As has been widely reported, Abdulmutallab then exercised his right to remain silent.
In retrospect, the inadvisability of this approach seems self-evident.]
That revelation comes in the aftermath of Congressional hearings on how it was that Abdulmutallab, the undibomber went, in about twenty-four hours, from roasting his own chestnuts on an open fire during a Christmas Day flight to Detroit, then to a jail cell, complete with a lawyer, a Constitutional right not to anwwer questions, and presumably the mother of all ice packs. This from Stephen Hayes at the Weekly Standard:
. . . Four top counterterrorism officials testified before a congressional committee that they were not consulted about how to handle the interrogation of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the al Qaeda operative who attempted to blow up Flight 253 on December 25, 2008.
That group included all three senior Obama administration officials who testified before the Senate Homeland Security Committee on Wednesday: Janet Napolitano, Secretary of Homeland Security; Michael Leiter, chairman of the National Counterterrorism Center; and Dennis Blair, the Director of National Intelligence. It also included FBI Director Robert Mueller.
With surprising candor, Blair, the nation's top intelligence official, explained that these officials were not deliberately excluded from the decisionmaking process in the immediate aftermath of the attack. Rather, he told the Senate Homeland Security Committee, there was no process at all.
"I've been a part of the discussions which established this high-value interrogation unit, [HIG] which we started as part of the executive order after the decision to close Guantanamo. That unit was created for exactly this purpose -- to make a decision on whether a certain person who's detained should be treated as a case for federal prosecution or for some of the other means. We did not invoke the HIG in this case," he said. "We should have."
We learn from NewsWeek that the White House responded with anger to Blair's admissions, calling his testimony incorrect:
[O]fficials who have worked on the issue said Blair was wrong on almost every count. Abdulmutallab couldn't possibly have been questioned by the HIG because the unit doesn't exist yet. The task force had recommended it be created to handle the questioning of "high value" Qaeda leaders who might be captured overseas—a criterion that clearly doesn't apply in Abdulmutallab's case. But the proposal is still being reviewed by the National Security Council, and the actual unit has not yet been created.
The specific recommendation, one source said, was to have a collection of intelligence officers and FBI agents who are knowledgeable about the background of the Qaeda leaders and deploy them—along with language and regional experts—as soon as a Qaeda leader was captured. But since Abdulmutallab was not a Qaeda leader, and was captured in Detroit, not overseas, the HIG wouldn't apply in any case, said the source, who worked closely on the proposal. . . .
Administration officials said the comments by Blair were especially galling because they seemed to vindicate the chief Republican criticism of the handling of the Detroit incident. . . .
Galling?!?!?!? Our Moralizer In Chief has utterly emasculated our ability to gain timely and actionable intelligence from people who have nightly wet dreams about setting off nuclear explosions in every city in our country. Yet the Obama administration shows far more concern about being publicly criticized by Republicans. All emphasis is on the political, none on the substance. The Obama administration has their priorities completely upside down.
To restate the revelations from the hearing and the NewsWeek article, this is the position in which Obama has placed our national security: There is no specific procedure for our government to deal with captured enemy combatants, nor are the tools in place to be able to conduct interrogations coordinated across those agencies charged with countering terrorism. By Executive Order, the CIA cannot interrogate high value detainees and, for the past year through today, the designated replacement for the CIA interrogators, the HIG, a task force under FBI leadership and direct White House oversight, is still on the drawing board. For al Qaeda leaders or operatives captured in the U.S., it is Obama's de facto policy that they would go into the criminal justice system.
The national security imperative of gathering intelligence is no longer the top priority. It is trumped in the Obama administration by the political imperative of giving substance to the far left's calls to treat terrorism as a criminal matter and terrorists as people with constitutional rights. Given Obama's ostentatious grandstanding on terrorism and in particular the issue of interrogating enemy combatants, given Obama's many rhetorical efforts to establish himself as our Moralizer in Chief on this issue, and yet given the reality of his horrid national security effort, it is apparent that while Obama has more than talked the talk, he has stumbled, fallen, stubbed a toe, pulled a hammy and broken both legs on the walk.
To continue from Mr. Hayes:
That's quite an admission. Blair wasn't finished (see the 51:00 mark of this video). "Frankly, we were thinking more of overseas people and, duh!, we didn't put it then. That's what we will do now. And so we need to make those decisions more carefully. I was not consulted and the decision was made on the scene. It seemed logical to the people there but it should have been taken using this HIG format at a higher level." . . .
Blair admitted that Abdulmutallab was not interrogated for intelligence purposes because the Obama administration had not considered using the newly-created elite interrogation unit on terrorist in the United States.
If Blair considered the handling of Abdulmutallab a mistake, FBI Director Robert Mueller, testifying at the same time before the Senate Judiciary Committee, did not. Mueller, like Blair, acknowledged that the crucial decision about how to treat Abdulmutallab was made by local FBI agents.
Now think about that for a second. It's not merely that the Director of the FBI, the DNI, and the DNCC were not contacted and that this was a systemic failure arising out of the lack of any procedure for a very forseeable contingeny. I think (hope and pray) that it is safe to assume these three stellar civil servants had heard about the attempted bombing in real time. But the fact is that after the undiebomber was captured, none of these individuals lifted so much as a finger to insinuate themselves into the situation to ensure that the undiebomber was interrogated for every bit of actionable intelligence that he possessed. Not a one of them made so much as a phone call. They sat with their thumbs up their collective asses in blissful ignorance while the Undiebomber was questioned by local FBI - who may or may not have the slightest background in counterterroism and the specifics of our intel on Abdulmutallab - and shortly thereafter, read his rights and given a lawyer. Lacking a procedure for this eventuality in year nine of the war on terror is unfathomable. Displaying this degree of placidity and lack of proactivity even in the abscence of a procedure is utterly unforgivable.
As an aside, it is not clear what role the DOJ directly played in that decision and, if they played any such role, whether Eric Holder was directly involved. That said, inquiring minds really, really want to know. The administration has refused to answer that question.
It should be noted that the White House, which, as previously noted, publicly trumpeted in August of 2009 that they had assumed a direct oversight role in high value interrogations, equally did nothing to intercede in this case. And let's not forget that the director of the National Counterterrorism Center was on vacation while all of this going on and that he, like Obama himself, saw no reason to cut his vacation short. All of this adds up to incompetence on a cosmic scale, a Three Stooges scale. And our national security is in their hands? Nyuck-Nyuck-Nyuck indeed.
. . . Mueller testified that those FBI agents interviewed Abdulmutallab about "ongoing and other threats." What the FBI director did not mention was that his agents interviewed the terrorist without any input from the National Counterterrorism Center — the institution we now know was sitting on top of a small mountain of not-yet-correlated information about the bomber.
So whatever information Abdulmutallab provided, he gave up in response to general questions about his activities, not in response to specific questions based on the intelligence the U.S. government had already collected on him. And within 24 hours — according to Senator Jeff Sessions, whose tough questioning left Mueller stuttering — Abdulmutallab was Mirandized and he stopped talking. (It would be nice to learn, from Mueller or someone else in a position to know, precisely when Abdulmutallab was read his rights.) . . .
Just unbelievable. If heads don't roll now for this level of ineptitude, we can rest assured that heads will roll in the future. It will be the heads of Americans who have placed their trust in Obama to protect our nation. Soaring rhetoric will stop neither bullets nor blast waves. Nor will Obama's moralizing be sufficient to keep a crippled jet in the sky. It seems inevitable that American blood will be spilled as a direct result of an Obama national security apparatus not merely in disaray, but Three Stooges-esque in its degree of incompetence.
Given that the Obama administration has already found criticism of their performance to be "galling," it is clear that the Obama administration is not going to do anything to correct this situation, Understand that there is no reason the Obama administration cannot, at this very moment, pull the Undiebomber out of our federal justice system, treat him as an enemy combatant, and interrogate him his every waking minute without the presence of a lawyer. Instead, Obama is refusing to pull the undiebombler out of the District Court docket now because it would be a tacit acknowledgement of the the glaring holes in - and gross incompetence of - his national security apparatus.
I documented in detail two weeks ago how Obama had weakened our national security during his first year in office. I was far, far too easy on Obama. I had assumed that our national security apparatus was, nine years on from 9-11, still a well oiled machine, but that Obama had made a command decision to move Abdulmutallab to federal Court. I had no idea that the reality is that Obama had made sufficient changes to the procedures and tone of our national security apparatus that it stands today as uncoordinated, incompetent, operating on autopilot without appropriate procedures in place and unfathomably lacking in proactiveness at the very highest levels. After Obama has had a full year in office, and after he had inherited a functioning system from the Bush administration, this is truly scandalous - not to mention incredibly dangerous for America. Call it Undiegate.
Update: The Washington Post Editorial Board arrives (a bit late) at some of the same conclusions:
. . . The Obama administration had three options: It could charge [the undiebomber] in federal court. It could detain him as an enemy belligerent. Or it could hold him for prolonged questioning and later indict him, ensuring that nothing Mr. Abdulmutallab said during questioning was used against him in court.
It is now clear that the administration did not give serious thought to anything but Door No. 1. This was myopic, irresponsible and potentially dangerous. . . .
According to sources with knowledge of the discussions, no one questioned the approach or raised the possibility of taking more time to question the suspect. This makes the administration's approach even more worrisome than it would have been had intelligence personnel been cut out of the process altogether.
. . . when a moderate like Collins calls the handling of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab “irresponsible,” “dangerous,” and “inconceivable,” that has a broader political impact. When Collins says that “Foreign terrorists are enemy combatants and they must be treated as such,” and calls the current Obama policies a “charade,” that will make it more difficult for people to write it off as knee-jerk, right-wing contempt for Obama instead of his policies:
While Collins is on the money, she does not go quite far enough. Few people, Collins included, seem to be catching on to the degree to which Obama has deconstructed what was once a highly functional national security apparatus, not to mention the equally scandalous degree of institutional passivity at the top of that apparatus now.