Thursday, January 21, 2010

It's not too late to properly interrogate Christmas Day bomber Abdulmutallab

(l-r) NCTC's Michael Leiter, DNI Blair, Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano

Scott Brown's stunning upset victory in Massachusetts was driven by deep voter discontent with the economy, taxes, wild spending and misguided health care "reform." But terrorism was a big issue, too. Massachusetts voters were disturbed by the Obama Administration's decision to try key 9/11 terrorists in a New York federal court. Then, when the abortive Christmas Day bombing occurred and the culprit, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was quickly Mirandized and given a court-appointed lawyer who advised him not to talk, Brown made it clear that this was no way to protect the nation -- and voters agreed.

For more than three weeks, we were told, hey, no problem, because the FBI interrogated Abdulmutallab and he talked his head off -- albeit only until his lawyer advised him to clam up -- and we gained lots and lots of good intelligence from him. While I was skeptical about this, I gave the Administration the benefit of a doubt. After all, I assumed, Obama's national security team had put their heads together and made a judgment, based on much more knowledge than I have. So I respected that.

Shockingly, it turns out that they did not put heads together. In fact, at Wednesday's Senate hearing into the matter, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair testified that he was never even consulted about how to treat Abdulmutallab. Michael Leiter, Director of the National Counterterrorism Center and Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano told the Senate that they had not been consulted either.

So who did make the decision to question Abdulmutallab for "at least two hours," charge him, give him his Miranda warnings, and provide him with a taxpayer-paid lawyer? The President? The Attorney General? The FBI Director? It's not entirely clear whether someone higher up in the Justice Department had a hand in it, but FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III said that he, too, wasn't in the loop. He explained lamely that FBI agents on the ground made the decision to read Mr. Abdulmutallab his rights and get him an attorney. "It happened so fast that there was no time, really, at that point, where the transfer was made very quickly, given the moving circumstances, to determine whether alternative arrests could or should be made," said Mueller.
So, the opportunity to question a foreign terrorist who tried to blow up an airplane had to be made so "quickly" that no one could lob a call into Blair, Mueller, Leiter, Panella, White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan, National Security Advisor James Jones, someone, anyone? And not one of these people heard about the bombing and thought, gee, maybe I ought to make a few calls and dip my oar in on this decision?

In his testimony, Blair said that he disagrees with the decision to question Abdulmutallab as a criminal suspect and not interrogate him as an ienemy combatant (better late than never):

Mr. Blair...revealed a previously undisclosed disagreement among the Obama administration's top officials over the handling of the Nigerian who is accused of attempting to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253.

The intelligence chief said Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab should have been questioned by the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group, or HIG, a special panel established by President Obama.

"We did not invoke the HIG in this case. We should have. Frankly, we were thinking more of overseas people. And, you know … that's what we will do now. And so we need to make those decisions more carefully,"
The HIG was established last August in keeping with President Obama's January 2009 executive order barring the use on captured terrorists of all interrogation techniques except those countenanced by the Army Field Manual. It was to be made up of knowledgeable FBI and CIA counterterrorism officers under the FBI's lead.

"That unit was created exactly for this purpose," Mr. Blair added. "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."
So the entire intelligence and national security leadership, apparatus and processes put in place by Congress and the Bush and Obama administrations since 9/11 was forgotten, ignored or side-stepped and none of the responsible officials and intelligence experts weighed in. The matter was left to some Detroit FBI agents as if it were a bank robbery.

The is appalling. But it's not too late. President Obama still has the clear-cut authority to declare Abdulmutallab an enemy combatant, drop the civilian charges, and place him in military custody where he can be questioned by that HIG. No one can say that we won't learn anything more from him than we did in that brief window when FBI agents questioned him, because absolutely no one knows what he does or doesn't know.

Mr. President, it's up to you.

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