A quick stroll down memory lane in honor of Holder’s letter to Republican senators today accepting full responsibility for the decision to treat Abdulmutallab as a civilian. Don’t be too hard on the guy: Why, it was just a few short months ago that he was stammering his way through basic questions from Lindsey Graham about whether Bin Laden would need to be Mirandized if we caught him. Nice to see that, a year into his term, he’s finally settled on a position. I think.
Jan Crawford of CBS is unmoved:
The former CIA Director, Gen. Michael Hayden, contended out in a recent Washington Post editorial that the decision cost valuable intelligence. And while the White House last night was heralding the fact that Abdulmutallab has now started talking again—five weeks after he tried to blow up the airliner–those critics say the five weeks of silence came at a high cost, with real consequences.
Although he still may have some intelligence to offer, the five-week delay in questioning him diminished it, they say, because it gave al Qaeda time to adjust to whatever he revealed—changing safe houses, closing down email accounts, adopting new pseudonyms…
As Gregory Katsas, an assistant attorney general in the Bush Administration pointed out to me, Abdulmutallab is an actual combatant. He’s not some money guy or a facilitator. He tried to blow up a plane with nearly 300 people on board. And he’s not a U.S. citizen. Sure, he’s being held in this country, Katsas notes, but so were three enemy combatants during the Bush Administration—Yaser Esam Hamdi, Jose Padilla and Ali Salah Al Marri–and courts have said those detentions were lawful…
And that’s before you get to the real differences between Reid, whom many believe was more of a lone actor, and Abdulmutallab, who was an operative trained with and directed by al Qaeda abroad. Abdulmutallab presumably would have valuable, actionable intelligence—about his handlers, their locale, and his own individualized training–if interrogators had moved quickly to extensively question him before al Qaeda readjusted.
As Steve Hayes reminds us, Holder himself acknowledged back in 2002 that letting John Walker Lindh lawyer up was bound to make it harder to interrogate him for intel purposes. Meanwhile, Democrats are pushing the fact that Richard Reid was also Mirandized — repeatedly — when he was arrested, but like Crawford says, the “Bush did it too” argument isn’t a winner either politically or on the merits. But never mind all that. Remember when Cheney first started coming after The One last year on national security and 60 Minutes asked him to respond? March 23, 2009:
“Well, there is no doubt that we have not done a particularly effective job in sorting through who are truly dangerous individuals that we’ve got to make sure are not a threat to us, who are folks that we just swept up. The whole premise of Guantanamo promoted by Vice President Cheney was that somehow the American system of justice was not up to the task of dealing with these terrorists. I fundamentally disagree with that. Now, do these folks deserve Miranda rights? Do they deserve to be treated like a shoplifter down the block? Of course not,” Obama said.
The distinction, presumably, is that Gitmo detainees are somehow one category of jihadi and Abdulmutallab is a second, separate category — but what’s the distinction that divides those categories? Is it that Abdulmutallab actually made it to American soil for his attack whereas the Gitmo crowd was nabbed overseas? That’s a perverse incentive, if so: In that case, the closer you get to American civilians, the more rights you have. Is it the fact that the FBI, a law enforcement bureau, was the first agency to respond to the scene after the plane landed? If so, the distinction seems arbitrary: Had the CIA nabbed Abdulmutallab in Ghana before he boarded the plane, presumably he could have been sent to Gitmo or some other military prison. All of which is to say that the legal lines drawn here seem to depend not on the status of the suspect but on the happenstance of the circumstances of the arrest. Frankly, it makes me wonder if there’s any discrete, settled policy at all in how to handle jihadis going forward. There had better be one soon: As you’re about to see, via RCP, this is no academic exercise.