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.
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].”