The Magazine

Politicizing Intelligence

The Obama administration leaks and spins.

Feb 15, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 21 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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Last week, a little more than 24 hours after the FBI warned senators not to disclose the sensitive information that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was cooperating with the FBI, the White House shared the information with the news media.

Politicizing Intelligence

An indignant Christopher “Kit” Bond, the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, immediately wrote to President Obama, complaining that he had been told by FBI Director Robert Mueller that the cooperation of the Nigerian terrorist who tried to bomb a Northwest passenger jet over Detroit was extremely sensitive information and was to be kept quiet. It was so sensitive, in fact, that the entire committee wasn’t briefed, just Bond and the committee chairman Dianne Feinstein.

“On Monday afternoon, the leadership of the Senate Intelligence Committee received notification from the Federal Bureau of Investigation concerning Abdulmutallab’s recent willingness to provide critical information,” Bond wrote. “FBI officials stressed the importance of not disclosing the fact of his cooperation in order to protect on-going and follow-on operations to neutralize additional threats to the American public; FBI Director Bob Mueller personally stressed to me that keeping the fact of his cooperation quiet was vital to preventing future attacks against the United States.”

At the White House briefing Thursday afternoon, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs attacked Bond for politicizing intelligence and haughtily demanded an apology: “No briefing is done here or anywhere in this administration where classified information is used in a place where it shouldn’t be,” Gibbs said. “And I would suggest that somebody that alleges that, when they know it doesn’t happen, owe[s] people an apology.”

The White House contends that the sensitive information about cooperation from Abdulmutallab was unintentionally disclosed during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Tuesday. At the hearing, Mueller responded to concern from Senator Olympia Snowe that the decision to mirandize the terrorist so quickly meant that the U.S. government missed valuable intelligence. “Let me just add one other point, and that is, it is a continuum. In other words you can look at it in that day, but I encourage you to look at what has happened since then. It is a continuum in which over a period of time we have been successful in obtaining intelligence, not just on day one, but day two, day three, day four, day five and down the road.”

That’s not much of a disclosure. But Gibbs explained that the White House felt the need to provide background briefings about what Abdulmutallab was now saying in order to “contextualize” the information after receiving inquiries from reporters. 

Just helping out with the facts, ma’am. But as CNN’s Ed Henry (presumably one of the contextualizees) reported: “The revelation is part of an aggressive attempt by the White House to push back on Republican claims the Obama administration mishandled the terror investigation, with Abdulmutallab being read his Miranda rights shortly after he began cooperating with investigators. ”

Now where could Bond—and many others—have gotten the idea that the White House was using the information to score political points?

So a week that began with the White House struggling to defend its manifest incompetence in the aftermath of the Christmas Day attack ended with a desperate White House press secretary unconvincingly batting down a growing sense that the Obama administration was letting politics—not national security​—​drive its response to the attempted bombing of Flight 253.

What made Gibbs’s job particularly difficult was the fact that some of the criticism was coming from unexpected sources. One day before Bond’s letter, at a hearing of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Obama’s director of national intelligence, Dennis Blair, worried aloud about the administration’s political use of sensitive intelligence. Representative Peter King repeatedly pressed Blair about whether the White House briefing for reporters on Abdulmutallab had been cleared by the intelligence community. At first, Blair attempted to duck the question. “Again, Congressman King, I’m not going to comment on the internal processes for this investigation right now.”

King did not let the issue drop. He ended another long statement accusing the Obama administration of politicizing intelligence by saying, “I just wondered if the entire intelligence community was consulted on that before these political decisions were made [to release information].”

This time, Blair responded, haltingly. “I understand your question, sir,” he said. “As I said before, I—the—but the level of—the level of—the political dimension of what to me ought to be a national security issue has—has been quite—quite high. I don’t think it’s been very—particularly good, I will tell you, from the inside and in terms of us trying to get the right job done to—to protect the United States.”

Politico reported that Blair’s words were a “blast” at the White House, and Blair’s office issued a clarification later in the day attempting to separate Blair’s words from the question that prompted them. Although the question had been about the White House and politicization of intelligence, and although Blair prefaced his answer by saying “I understand your question, sir,” a statement from Blair spokesman Arthur House claimed “the DNI did not criticize the administration in any way.”

Did the White House tell the DNI to clarify Blair’s statement? If so, it wouldn’t be the first time. Two weeks ago, when Blair testified before the Senate Homeland Security Committee, he said that the U.S. government had made a “mistake” by not allowing the high-value detainee interrogation group (the HIG) to question Abdulmutallab. Within hours, under the headline, “Intel Chief’s Comments Infuriate Obama Officials,” Newsweek magazine reported that the “White House has ordered Blair to ‘correct’ his remarks.” Blair did so quickly, noting that the HIG did not yet exist at the time Abdulmutallab was detained.

Obama officials were no doubt embarrassed by the gaffe. But what really made them angry? “Administration officials said the comments by Blair were especially galling because they seemed to vindicate the chief Republican criticism of the handling of the Detroit incident,” Newsweek reported. And in case there were any confusion about his new views, Blair emphasized them again in an odd exchange during the Intelligence Committee hearing on Tuesday. As Senator Bond was questioning Mueller, Blair interrupted, offering his unsolicited support for the Obama administration.

There are decisions that have to be made in which you balance the requirement for intelligence with the requirement for a prosecution and the—the sorts of pressure you can bring on—bring on to the people that you arrest in either form. It’s got to be a decision made at the time, and I think the balance struck in the Mutallab case was a very—was an understandable balance.”

Two weeks earlier Blair had called the interrogation a “mistake.” Now, after his scolding by the White House, he was eagerly defending it. 

The administration is apparently so overwhelmed by its spin efforts some officials have continued to push bogus narratives even after they’ve been put to rest, on the record, by senior officials. For example, a Washington Post story Thursday sourced largely to “administration officials” repeated the false claim that Abdulmutallab had already stopped talking when interrogators mirandized him. 

According to the Post: “Administration officials have acknowledged that the suspect initially spoke to investigators for less than an hour before being treated for injuries. He then asked for a lawyer, although U.S. officials say he stopped speaking to investigators before he was read his rights.” But three sources familiar with Abdulmutallab’s interrogations told The Weekly Standard that the al Qaeda operative stopped talking only upon being advised of his right to remain silent.

In any case, Mueller, during his testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday, acknowledged, without qualification, that Abdulmutallab stopped talking once he was provided with a lawyer:

We were then given an opportunity later that night to again interview him, and after consultation—or in consultation with Justice Department attorneys, we determined to follow our protocols, protocols established by the Supreme Court, in terms of how you interrogate and question individuals in custody in the United States. He was—a team went in to talk with him, he talked for a few moments, and then afterwards, after he was given his Miranda warnings, asked for an attorney, and we discontinued the questioning.

Abdulmutallab stopped talking—and the FBI “discontinued the questioning”—after he was given his Miranda warnings and asked for a lawyer, not before. But “administration officials” continue to tell reporters otherwise.

It is understandable that the White House would be eager to try to spin away the incompetence on display in the aftermath of the Christmas Day bombing, and to explain away the deleterious national security implications of the administration’s stubborn insistence on treating terrorists as criminal suspects who need to be read their rights like ordinary criminal suspects. 

But it’s also understandable that Kit Bond and other members of Congress are outraged: “After telling me to keep my mouth shut, the White House discloses sensitive information in an effort to defend a dangerous and unpopular decision to mirandize Abdulmutallab, and I’m supposed to apologize?”

The American people have reason to be concerned for our security—and outraged about the administration’s putting politics first.

—Stephen F. Hayes


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