The Magazine

‘Duh!’

The nation’s top intelligence official speaks.

Feb 1, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 19 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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In congressional testimony on January 20, the nation’s top intelligence official, Dennis Blair, acknowledged that the U.S. government mishandled the interrogation of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian terrorist who tried to blow up a plane over Detroit on Christmas Day. Specifically, Blair was not happy that Abdulmutallab was charged as a common criminal and read his rights, rather than being questioned by the elite interrogation unit announced by President Obama as a replacement for the CIA teams used by the Bush administration.

“I’d been a part of the deliberations which established this high-value interrogation unit [HIG],” Blair explained at a hearing of the Senate Homeland Security Committee. “That unit was created exactly for 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. We should have.”

The candor is admirable. Blair did not make excuses, but he did offer an explanation.

Frankly, we were thinking more of overseas people and—duh! [here Blair theatrically slaps palm to forehead]—we didn’t put it [into effect] then. That’s what we will do now. .  .  .I was not consulted; 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.

It turns out Blair was just one of several top counterterrorism officials who were not consulted on the very important decision as to how to question Abdulmutallab. Also on the list: Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, Director of the National Counterterrorism Center Michael Leiter, and FBI Director Robert Mueller.

Obama administration officials were not happy with Blair’s sudden outbreak of transparency. Within hours of the hearing’s end, Newsweek reported that “Obama administration officials were flabbergasted” by Blair’s testimony, which was “misinformed on multiple levels.” How? For one thing, these officials explained, the high-value detainee interrogation group that Blair described “doesn’t exist.”

That’s not reassuring. A year after Obama’s executive order, the HIG is not yet up and running, and his top intelligence guy is in the dark?

The intelligence failures that led to the Detroit attack are cause for deep concern. But the stunning incompetence of the Obama administration’s response to the attack—laid bare in those hearings last week—is more worrisome.

After 20 minutes in the restroom aboard Northwest Flight 253, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab returned to his seat and set himself afire trying to light the explosives that had been sewn into his underpants. It didn’t work, and passengers and crew restrained him.

When the plane landed just before 1 p.m., Abdulmutallab was met by Customs and Border Protection officers. He was taken to University of Michigan Hospital in Ann Arbor where custody was transferred to local FBI agents. By early evening, the al Qaeda operative had been read his Miranda rights. Having been told that he had the right to remain silent, he did just that.

And there is the real scandal. In an interview with 60 Minutes last spring, President Obama discussed the handling of captured terrorists. “Do these folks deserve Miranda rights? Do they deserve to be treated like a shoplifter​—down the block? Of course not.”

Local FBI agents questioned the terrorist for some two hours before he was mirandized. But sources tell The Weekly Standard that the interview was perfunctory, with the kinds of questions one might ask, well, a shoplifter: Why did you do it? Did you have help? Have you done this before?

The White House claims to have obtained “useable, actionable intelligence” from Abdulmutallab during this brief interrogation. Perhaps. But there are reasons to be skeptical. For one thing, Obama himself three days later declared the attack the work of “an isolated extremist.”

Still, various news reports suggest that Abdulmutallab told his questioners that he had trained in Yemen and warned that other attackers were to follow. That’s useful, of course. But what else might he know? The White House launched an administration-wide review to examine the intelligence failures that led to the Christmas Day attack, but by mirandizing Abdulmutallab they shut down the most knowledgeable source of information about the attack, its perpetrator—and other possible attacks and perpetrators that Abdulmutallab might have known about.

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