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An ‘Isolated Extremist’?

Obama gets it dead wrong.

Jan 18, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 17 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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On Monday December 28, three days after Umar Farouk -Abdulmutallab tried to bring down Northwest Flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit, President Barack Obama stepped up to a podium in Honolulu, to make his first statement about the attacks. “This incident, like several that have preceded it, demonstrates that an alert and courageous citizenry are far more resilient than an isolated extremist,” he said.

An ‘Isolated Extremist’?

But Abdulmutallab was not an isolated extremist. He had been dispatched by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to kill Americans after having spent four months training with them in Yemen. He told this to his interrogators. 

Jane Harman, a Democrat from California and chair of the subcommittee on intelligence under the House Homeland Security Committee, put out a statement about the al Qaeda links. “The facts are still emerging, but there are strong suggestions of a Yemen-Al Qaeda connection and an intent to blow up the plane over U.S. airspace.” 

On Sunday morning, the New York Times reported on al Qaeda support for Abdulmutallab and quoted a law enforcement official who called the reports “plausible.” Other media reports included the fact that Abdulmutallab’s father had warned U.S. diplomats and intelligence officials in Nigeria that his son had become a radical and had moved to Yemen.

How is it possible that the president of the United States could get a central fact about an attempted terrorist attack—arguably, the central fact—dead wrong in his first public statement, three days after the attack? 

President Obama and White House staffers have spent the subsequent two weeks pointing fingers at the intelligence community, detailing the many failures of the bureaucracy, and promising accountability. Given what we know about those failures, that’s appropriate. But in his January 7 statement announcing the results of the review he had ordered, the president boldly declared that the buck stops with him. Strong rhetoric. So what does it mean in practice? The Obama administration’s lack of seriousness on counterterrorism before the attack seems to have been rivaled only by its incompetence afterwards. 

Some of the incompetence is well-known. Janet Napolitano’s famous declaration that “the system worked” has been the subject of much well-deserved mockery. But the problem was not with Napolitano alone. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said much the same thing in an appearance the same day on Face the Nation.

When the top spokesman for an administration makes the same argument as a cabinet secretary, it’s because that is the message the White House has decided to emphasize. And on the Sunday after the botched attack, the White House wanted the country to believe the system had worked. 

The National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) was created in 2004 for the purpose of coordinating intelligence among the many agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence community. The NCTC essentially exists to make sure the strands of intelligence like those the U.S. government had on Abdulmutallab are brought together to prevent an attack.  

Michael Leiter, the head of the NCTC, spent Christmas Day on the job. He left the day after, having gotten permission of the White House and the director of national intelligence. John Brennan, President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, explained the decision at a press conference on January 7. 

Mike Leiter raised with me that he was in fact scheduled to go on leave to meet his son, and he asked me whether or not he should cancel that trip. I asked Mike about whether or not he had a full complement of folks and his deputy was going to be in place. Mike said he did. And I said, “Mike, no, you deserve this vacation, you need to be with your son.” So I was the one who told him he should go out there. 

Under any circumstances, Leiter should have remained at the NCTC to help determine how such an intelligence failure could have happened. But there was a truly pressing reason for him to stick around and do his job. Abdulmutallab had told interrogators that there were others to follow. The concerns were serious enough that Obama surged the number of federal air marshals on airplanes. 

And when Brennan was asked about connecting those dots, he said: 

The National Counterterrorism Center has been working day and night for​—​since this December 25th attempted attack​—has been scouring all of the databases—identities databases as well as all-source databases​—​to make those correlations. And I’m confident that they have done that very thoroughly.

So at precisely the same time the staff of the NCTC was working furiously to piece together bits of intelligence to prevent another attack, the director was on a White House-approved vacation?

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