The White House yesterday leaked the news that the Christmas Day bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, had begun cooperating with FBI interrogators last week. The Washington press corps quickly declared victory for the Obama administration and suggested that the news vindicated the decision to read Abdulmutallab his Miranda rights just 10 hours after he was detained and after just 50 minutes of questioning.
It's good news that Abdulmutallab is talking.
But he started talking five weeks after the attack. Intelligence is perishable. The U.S. government passed on an opportunity to interrogate him at a time when his al Qaeda sponsors in Yemen probably thought he was incapable of talking. And the the fact that he is cooperating now should not obscure the gross mishandling of the incident by the Obama administration.
For those capable of looking beyond the White House spin, the hearing yesterday raised more troubling questions than it answered.
*For days the Obama administration has tried to convince reporters that the Abdulmutallab stopped talking before he was Mirandized. Accounts in both the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post in recent days carried that claim. Three sources familiar with the interrogations told TWS that those claims were incorrect. And yesterday FBI Robert Mueller acknowledged that that Abdulmutallab stopped talking "after he was given" Miranda warnings.
*That's important. One of the greatest concerns about the handling of Abdulmutallab is that FBI interrogators -- in their initial 50 minute interview -- questioned him without the benefit of the information the U.S. intelligence community had collected on him in the six months prior to his attack. Mueller confirmed this, saying, "we did not have much information at 3:30," when Abdulmutallab was initially questioned. Mueller testified that they had gathered more information on Abdulmutallab to use in his second interrogation. But when the "clean team" met with Abdulmutallab some five hours later to read him his rights, he stopped talking. So despite the fact that the intelligence community had compiled a dossier on Abdulmutallab -- which included information from his father and from intercepts -- none of that information was used to question him for five weeks after he was detained.
*In testimony before the Senate Homeland Security Committee two weeks ago, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair testified that the FBI interrogation of Abdulmutallab was a "mistake." Blair and White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan were said to be angry that Abdulmutallab had been Mirandized so quickly and that an opportunity to collect valuable intelligence had been lost. That changed abruptly on Tuesday. As Senator Kit Bond (R-MO) questioned FBI Director Mueller, Blair interrupted to offer his unsolicited opinion that "the balance struck was a good balance." Blair is supposed to be the independent voice of the intelligence community -- and many intelligence professional remain dismayed at the botched handling of Abdulmutallab on Christmas Day. Why did Blair, the nation's top intelligence official, change his mind?
*Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) asked Dennis Blair about a claim from top White House counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, that he was "surprised" al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula could attack the United States. Feingold wanted to know if we should have been surprised by the attack. "We had some indication that they were planning attacks on the U.S. homeland," he said. What were those indications? Why didn't Brennan know about them?
These new questions and contradictions would have occasioned front-page, fact-checking treatment if they'd taken place under George W. Bush. But not now. Last week, the White House argued that the FBI had gotten everything they could out of Abdulmutallab in their 50-minutes of interrogation. Today, the same White House is boasting about the valuable intelligence they are getting from him. And the White House press corps reports it without skepticism.
There are reasons to be skeptical beyond the obvious, inherent contradictions in those claims. The Obama administration has mishandled the response to Abdulmutallab from the beginning, when the White House message machine tried to convince the country that "the system worked."
Four top U.S. counterterrorism officials -- including Mueller, Blair, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, and Director of the National Counterterrorism Center Michael Leiter -- were not consulted about whether to handle Abdulmutallab as an enemy combatant or a criminal. Leiter went on vacation the day after the attack. John Brennan, the top White House counterterrorism adviser, told him he could go. Three days after the attack, despite copious evidence that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was involved, President Obama declared the attempted bombing the work of "an isolated extremist." Janet Napolitano, Secretary of Homeland Security, said that she was surprised by AQAP's "determination" to attack the U.S. homeland and shocked to learn that they would send an individual, not a group, to carry out the deed. DNI Blair told Congress that an elite interrogation team should have questioned Abdulmutallab -- only to amend his remarks hours later to acknowledge that the new unit does not exist.
Let's hope Abdulmutallab is talking with the candor the White House suggests. And the FBI deserves credit for using Abdulmutallab's family to gain his cooperation. But serious problems remain.
The Obama administration's law-enforcement first strategy has thoroughly confused those whose job it is to keep us safe. Intelligence officials -- both at home and abroad -- have told members of Congress that they do not have clarity on even the most basic procedures to follow upon capturing and detaining terrorists.
It's not hard to see why. At the end of the hearing yesterday, Senator Bond asked DNI Blair whether the U.S. government would have to read Miranda rights to Osama bin Laden if he were captured. He paused. The scene was reminiscent of a hearing last fall, when Senator Lindsey Graham posed the same question to Attorney General Eric Holder. Holder's response: "It depends."
After thinking for a moment, Blair chuckled and said he would "very much hope" that the intelligence community would have an opportunity to "squeeze all the information" out of bin Laden. Bond, clearly taken aback by the non-answer, asked him again.
Blair's response: No comment.
So in the space of six months, the nation's top law enforcement official and the nation's top intelligence official have refused to rule out reading Miranda rights to terrorists.
Are we at war?