There is one reason that White House should be thrilled about the Massachusetts Senate race. It crowded out news that came out of the stunning testimony of Obama administration officials Wednesday on the Christmas Day terrorist attack. Four top counterterrorism officials testified before a congressional committee that they were not consulted about how to handle the interrogation of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the al Qaeda operative who attempted to blow up Flight 253 on December 25, 2008.
That group included all three senior Obama administration officials who testified before the Senate Homeland Security Committee on Wednesday: Janet Napolitano, Secretary of Homeland Security; Michael Leiter, chairman of the National Counterterrorism Center; and Dennis Blair, the Director of National Intelligence. It also included FBI Director Robert Mueller.
With surprising candor, Blair, the nation's top intelligence official, explained that these officials were not deliberately excluded from the decisionmaking process in the immediate aftermath of the attack. Rather, he told the Senate Homeland Security Committee, there was no process at all.
"I've been a part of the discussions which established this high-value interrogation unit, [HIG] which we started as part of the executive order after the decision to close Guantanamo. That unit was created for exactly 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," he said. "We should have."
That's quite an admission. Blair wasn't finished (see the 51:00 mark of this video). "Frankly, we were thinking more of overseas people and, duh!, we didn't put it then. That's what we will do now. And so we need to make those decisions more carefully. I was not consulted and 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."
When Blair said "Duh," he literally gave himself a slap on the forehead, as if to say, "I cannot believe we were that stupid." It was an appropriate gesture.
Blair admitted that Abdulmutallab was not interrogated for intelligence purposes because the Obama administration had not considered using the newly-created elite interrogation unit on terrorist in the United States.
If Blair considered the handling of Abdulmutallab a mistake, FBI Director Robert Mueller, testifying at the same time before the Senate Judiciary Committee, did not. Mueller, like Blair, acknowledged that the crucial decision about how to treat Abdulmutallab was made by local FBI agents. But unlike Blair, he vigorously defended it.
"The decision to arrest [Abdulmutallab] and put him in criminal courts, the decision was made by the agents on the ground, the ones that took him from the plane and then followed up on the arrest in the hospital," Mueller told the committee. He also said: "In this particular case, in fast-moving events, decisions were made—appropriately, I believe, very appropriately—given the situation."
Again, stunning. The FBI Director believes it is appropriate — very appropriate — that four of the nation's top counterterrorism officials were never consulted about how to handle an al Qaeda terrorist who very nearly blew up an airplane with almost 300 passengers aboard.
Mueller testified that those FBI agents interviewed Abdulmutallab about "ongoing and other threats." What the FBI director did not mention was that his agents interviewed the terrorist without any input from the National Counterterrorism Center — the institution we now know was sitting on top of a small mountain of not-yet-correlated information about the bomber.