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.
So whatever information Abdulmutallab provided, he gave up in response to general questions about his activities, not in response to specific questions based on the intelligence the U.S. government had already collected on him. And within 24 hours — according to Senator Jeff Sessions, whose tough questioning left Mueller stuttering — Abdulmutallab was Mirandized and he stopped talking. (It would be nice to learn, from Mueller or someone else in a position to know, precisely when Abdulmutallab was read his rights.)
The administration's embarrassing performance continued even after the hearings had been adjourned. Blair's office released a statement intended to clarify his earlier remarks about the high-value detainee interrogation group — HIG.
"My remarks today before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs have been misconstrued. The FBI interrogated Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab when they took him into custody. They received important intelligence at that time, drawing on the FBI's expertise in interrogation that will be available in the HIG once it is fully operational."
The problem was not so much that Blair had not contemplated using the HIG on terrorists captured on U.S. soil — Duh! — but that it is not yet fully operational. And this is better? As Blair testified himself, the HIG was "started as part of the executive order after the decision to close Guantanamo." That was a year ago tomorrow. So the elite interrogation unit that was to have been keeping us safe after the administration banned enhanced interrogation and vowed to shut down Guantanamo Bay — it doesn't actually exist yet.
Barack Obama should call Scott Brown again — not to congratulate him, but to thank him for guaranteeing that this extraordinary incompetence does not get the coverage it deserves.