The Magazine

Lack of Intelligence

Why didn’t the Obama administration properly interrogate the Christmas bomber?

Feb 8, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 20 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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That, of course, is nonsense. Several sources confirm that Abdulmutallab’s interview lasted 50 minutes. And while Abdulmutallab did share some information about his time in Yemen, sources say that intelligence professionals, particularly those who have been tracking Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, are furious that they did not have any opportunity to learn more from a person who might have fresh knowledge about the group and its leaders. One source told me that there is virtually no one in the intelligence community who will defend the decision to mirandize Abdulmutallab after talking to him for less than an hour. 

The failure to obtain more from Abdulmutallab is all the more significant because intelligence officials are conducting fewer interrogations today than at any time since the 9/11 attacks. There are three reasons: (1) The administration has dramatically changed U.S. interrogation policy, sources say, and there is widespread confusion about what is permissible; (2) the HIG, which is supposed to conduct interrogations, does not yet exist; and (3) there are fewer terrorists to interrogate because the administration prefers to kill them with drone strikes rather than capture them on the ground.

The administration never misses a chance to make the last point—indeed, President Obama mentioned it in his State of the Union address. But you cannot interrogate a dead terrorist, which makes it all the more imperative that you get everything you can from any terrorists you do capture. 

“The determination to place Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab into the U.S. civilian court system was made without the input or knowledge of the director of National Intelligence, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, or the secretary of Homeland Security,” said Senator Susan Collins, ranking Republican on the Senate Homeland Security Committee. 

This mistake likely foreclosed the collection of additional intelligence information and may have prevented the collection of valuable intelligence about future terrorist threats to the United States. We know that interrogations of terrorists can provide critical intelligence, but our civil justice system, as opposed to military detention, encourages terrorists to “lawyer-up” and stop answering questions.

That was the case here. Abdulmutallab had provided some information to law enforcement officials immediately after his capture, and we surely would have obtained more if we had treated this foreign terrorist as an enemy belligerent and placed him in the military tribunal system instead.

Abdulmutallab sits in jail today with intelligence that we could be using to prevent future attacks. Top administration and intelligence officials—including Blair, FBI director Robert Mueller, and CIA director Leon Panetta—will have an opportunity to explain that fact at a hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee this week. 

If they show up.

Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.


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