It has been a month since Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab nearly killed 289 people on Flight 253. In the weeks since the Christmas Day attack, we've learned some very disturbing things about the Obama administration and terrorism.
We learned that the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Michael Leiter, whose agency is responsible for pulling together pieces of intelligence to prevent attacks, went on vacation the day after the attack. We learned that the top White House counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, told him to go. We learned that the White House's initial view of the botched attack -- from Janet Napolitano and Robert Gibbs -- was that "the system worked." We learned that President Obama still believed the attempted bombing was the work of "an isolated extremist" three days after the attack, despite a wealth of evidence that Abdulmutallab had been sent by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). We learned that Brennan was surprised that AQAP was capable of attacking the United States. We learned that Napolitano was surprised by al Qaeda's "determination" to hit the U.S. and stunned that they would send an individual -- not a group -- to conduct an attack. We learned that four top U.S. counterterrorism officials -- Leiter, Napolitano, FBI Director Robert Mueller and Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair -- were not consulted about whether to treat Abdulmutallab as an enemy combatant or a criminal. We learned that a proposed "high-value detainee interrogation unit," or HIG, does not exist one year into the Obama administration. We learned that Blair, the nation's top intelligence official, thought that it did. We learned that Abdulmutallab was read his Miranda rights less than twelve hours after he was captured. We learned that the FBI interrogated Abdulmutallab for just 50 minutes before he was told he had the right to remain silent and chose to exercise it.
That's an impressive record of incompetence. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs made it worse on Sunday. In an interview on Fox News Sunday, Gibbs was asked about the quick decision to Mirandize the al Qaeda operative. His first response was false, and his second, absurd.
In a brief exchange on the Christmas Day attack, host Chris Wallace asked Gibbs when President Obama was informed of the decision to treat Abdulmutallab as a criminal rather than an enemy combatant. Gibbs was dismissive. "Chris, the charges didn't happen until several days later," he responded.
The White House would probably like this to be true. It would make what was a hasty, ill-considered decision appear more deliberative. But it's not true. Abdulmutallab was charged in a conference room at University Hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan, at 4:30pm on December 26 -- a little more than 24 hours after he was taken into custody.
Wallace then asked Gibbs whether a 50-minute interrogation was enough: "You really don't think that if you'd interrogated him longer that you might have gotten more information, since we now know that al Qaeda in Yemen..."
Gibbs interrupted: "FBI interrogators believe they got valuable intelligence and were able to get all that they could out of him."
"All they could?" Wallace asked.
That is a preposterous claim.
"Given that even the smallest of details can have significant intelligence value there is no way a 50 minute interview could be sufficient to get all the information he could offer," says Representative Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), a senior member of the House Intelligence Committee and a former FBI special agent. "It is not likely that the interviewing agents even had the complete background on him to even get into the detailed questioning necessary to flush out all of the information he knew."
Indeed, THE WEEKLY STANDARD has learned that the FBI interviewed Abdulmutallab without this complete background and without access to the intelligence collected by other elements of the U.S. intelligence community. How much intelligence did we have? Abdulmutallab's father provided a first-person account of his son's radicalization during a meeting with U.S. officials on November 19. A draft dossier on Abdulmutallab sat in the computer of an analyst in Langley, Virginia, at the same time the FBI interrogated him at University Hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
There is more. According to the Washington Post:
Intelligence intercepts from Yemen beginning in early August, when Abdulmutallab arrived in that country, contained "bits and pieces about where he was, what his plans were, what he was telling people his plans were," as well as information about planning by the al-Qaeda branch in Yemen, a senior administration official said. "At first blush, not all these things appear[ed] to be related" to the 23-year-old Nigerian and the bombing attempt, he said, "but we believe they were."
The FBI did not ask about the information in these intercepts. Wouldn't it be helpful to do so now? The CIA dossier on Abdulmutallab has grown by orders of magnitude since his detention a month ago. Wouldn't it be useful to ask him questions about its contents? Abdulmutallab lived in Yemen for four months. How many details about his life there did the FBI get in their 50-minute interview? He was involved with pro-jihadist groups as a student in London. Did the FBI even know to ask about this?
Perhaps more important, the FBI has lost the opportunity to ask Abdulmutallab about intelligence that U.S. government is collecting now. In the weeks leading up to the attack, the intelligence community had information on "Umar Farouk" and on "the Nigerian" and on an attack being planned in Yemen. There is, without a doubt, the same kind of raw, uncorrelated intelligence among the vast collection of NSA intercepts today. It's entirely possible that Abdulmutallab would be in a position to give meaning to these pieces of information in a way that would at least help us understand al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and, at best, help prevent a coming attack.
For example, let's say that tomorrow the NSA intercepts a phone call that includes a discussion of "Abdul Rahman in Sana'a" who is planning a trip to the United States in the coming months. And let's further suppose that this "Abdul Rahman" is someone unknown to the U.S. intelligence community but who was mentioned in earlier intercepts involving Abdulmutallab. Wouldn't it be helpful to grill Adbulmutallab about his associate?
The consequences of these mistakes could be huge. "The political decision to move terrorist interrogations to the White House has put Americans' safety in jeopardy," said Senator Kit Bond, ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee. "If bin Laden were captured tomorrow, who would interrogate him? The White House doesn't have an answer."
It may be worse than that. The question may not be who would interrogate him but whether we would even have that opportunity. Senator Lindsey Graham asked Attorney General Eric Holder about this at a congressional hearing in November.
"Let me ask you this. Let's say we capture him tomorrow. When does custodial interrogation begin in his case? If we captured bin Laden tomorrow, would he be entitled to Miranda warning at the moment of capture?"
Holder responded: "Again, I'm not -- that all depends."
It depends. Eric Holder can imagine a scenario in which a U.S. government official reads Osama bin Laden his Miranda rights at the moment of capture.
Remember all of this the next time you hear an Obama administration official insist that we are at war with al Qaeda.