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Keep America Safe

Steps to reforming intelligence.

Jun 7, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 36 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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Two weeks ago President Obama fired his top intelligence adviser—or at least the man who held the title.

Keep America Safe

Photo Credit: Newscom

In the six months before Dennis Blair was relieved of his duties as director of national intelligence, there were three attacks on U.S. soil, each one with troubling details. After Fort Hood, we learned that the FBI knew before the attack about email correspondence between the shooter, Major Nidal Malik Hasan, and al Qaeda cleric Anwar al Awlaki and did nothing. We know that the Christmas Day bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, stopped talking to his interrogators after he was read his Miranda rights and that, moreover, the interrogation was conducted without the benefit of the dossier the CIA had compiled on Abdulmutallab. And the would-be Times Square bomber, Faisal Shahzad, almost escaped after leaks about his identity appeared in the press. There is much more. 

We were told by the administration that the system worked when it had not. We were told that the attackers had no connections to the international jihadist networks when they had many. We were told the high-value interrogation group was operational, and it wasn’t. We were told that 50 minutes was enough to learn everything knowable about a would-be attacker and his al Qaeda connections, a claim that was quickly discarded when he resumed cooperating and the administration wanted to let us know how much additional intelligence he was providing.

So someone had to go. Eric Holder and Janet Napolitano would have been better choices than Blair. But the decision to fire him suggests that the Obama administration has finally recognized that things had to change.

There have been other indications, too. After initially downplaying Faisal Shahzad’s ties to international terrorism, the administration swiftly and decisively corrected itself. Three months after arguing in a letter to Congress that the U.S. government had no choice but to quickly mirandize detained terrorists, Holder said that the administration would work with lawmakers to give interrogators more flexibility in their efforts to obtain intelligence.

These are good signs. But Obama needs to go further.

His first step is to end the investigation of CIA interrogators by the Justice Department. The repercussions have been severe. CIA operators, already risk averse, are today far less willing to take risks in the field out of fear that a wrong decision, even a legal one that produced crucial intelligence, could send them to jail. Obama should also insist that the Justice Department aggressively investigate the alleged exposure of CIA officials by lawyers representing Guantánamo detainees. Photographs of officials were discovered in the cell of Mustafa Ahmed al Hawsawi and were reportedly provided by investigators working for the ACLU and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. John Rizzo, former CIA general counsel and a 30-year intelligence veteran, said that the breach was far graver than the leak of Valerie Plame’s name.

Another crucial step: Move the day-to-day direction of intelligence policy out of the West Wing. President Obama wanted to nominate John Brennan to run the CIA, but the left protested, pointing to Brennan’s high-ranking positions at the agency during the Bush administration. But as White House “intelligence czar,” Brennan occupies a position of far more influence—proximity to the president is power. Brennan works for the administration; he is not an independent voice on intelligence matters. He has repeatedly shown himself willing to make political arguments in defense of the White House. It was a problem that Blair noted in congressional testimony after the Christmas Day attack. “The political dimension of what ought to me to be a national security issue has been quite high. I don’t think it has been particularly good, I will tell you, from the inside, in terms of us trying to get the right job done to protect the United States.” 

Nothing is more important, however, than a rethinking of interrogation policy. Obama ran on a promise to end “torture.” Most everyone understood him to mean “waterboarding,” but Obama has gone much further. By restricting interrogators to the techniques in the Army Field Manual he has chosen to take away valuable interrogation techniques—enhanced means that do not constitute “torture” and that have proven effective. Furthermore most of the interrogations of high-value terrorists captured overseas have been outsourced to liaison services. We are choosing to know less about our enemies. 

Finally, the president needs to provide the intelligence community with a clear mission. We are at war. We are fighting the adherents of radical Islam—non-state terrorist groups and the states that support them. This is the central fact of this war, and the president should not be shy about saying so. 

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