On second thought, the editorial board of the Washington Post concludes, the idea to treat Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab wasn’t as good as we first thought. In fact, as their editorial today makes clear, the decision resulted from incompetence, a myopic sense of counterterrorism, and a “knee-jerk” response to the Obama administration’s law-enforcement model. And that’s just the Post clearing its throat:
It is now clear that the administration did not give serious thought to anything but Door No. 1. This was myopic, irresponsible and potentially dangerous.
Whether to charge terrorism suspects or hold and interrogate them is a judgment call. We originally supported the administration’s decision in the Abdulmutallab case, assuming that it had been made after due consideration. But the decision to try Mr. Abdulmutallab turns out to have resulted not from a deliberative process but as a knee-jerk default to a crime-and-punishment model.
In testimony Wednesday before the Senate Homeland Security Committee, Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, and Michael Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, all said they were not asked to weigh in on how best to deal with Mr. Abdulmutallab. Some intelligence officials, including personnel from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, were included in briefings by the Justice Department before Mr. Abdulmutallab was charged. These sessions did provide an opportunity for those attending to debate the merits of detention vs. prosecution. According to sources with knowledge of the discussions, no one questioned the approach or raised the possibility of taking more time to question the suspect. This makes the administration’s approach even more worrisome than it would have been had intelligence personnel been cut out of the process altogether.
That’s a rather damning indictment, but it’s not the worst of it. According to DNI Dennis Blair’s testimony, the agents couldn’t have turned Abdulmutallab over to a program for interrogating high-value detainees even had they decided on that course of action. Almost a full year after Barack Obama disbanded the Bush-era program, the replacement program has yet to launch (emphasis mine):
The nation’s intelligence chief said the man accused of trying to blow up an airliner on Christmas Day should have been questioned by a special interrogation team instead of being handled as an ordinary criminal suspect.
Dennis Blair, the director of national intelligence, told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Wednesday that officials botched the handling of terror suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who is accused of working with a Yemen-based offshoot of al Qaeda to try to bring down the Detroit-bound jet carrying 290 passengers and crew.
A new panel charged with designating so-called high-value terrorism suspects for special interrogations should have been used in the case and the suspect should have been questioned by an elite group of interrogators, said Mr. Blair, who used the expression “duh” to emphasize his point.
Later in the day, Mr. Blair issued a statement saying his comments were “misconstrued.” “The FBI interrogated Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab when they took him into custody,” his statement said. “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,” he said, referring to the High-Value Interrogation Group. …
In his testimony Wednesday, Mr. Blair said the HIG “was created exactly for 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.”
He added: “We did not invoke the HIG in this case; we should have.”
The HIG teams don’t exist. At all. The WSJ reports that a task force created plans for HIG teams last summer, but the administration hasn’t moved forward towards creating them and making them operational. On Wednesday, an administration official said that the FBI was working with the Pentagon and the intelligence community to move forward.
Why did we dismantle the previous interrogation teams without having their replacements ready? We are, after all, at war — and our enemies didn’t take the year off, as we saw on Christmas Day. The lack of trained interrogation teams ready to act leaves us at risk for more failures on dot-connecting, as Marc Thiessen points out at The Corner:
In other words, by Blair’s own admission, the United States at this moment does not have a high-value terrorist interrogation capability — at a time when our country has once again come under terrorist attack. Of course, the administration did not think they needed such a capability — because they have stopped trying to capture high-value terrorists alive and bring them in for questioning. So when one landed in their lap unexpectedly, they had no idea what to do with him.
As I explain in Courting Disaster, the HIG is a joke — because the administration has limited the techniques at its disposal to those in the Army Field Manual. Police detectives and district attorneys across the country use more aggressive techniques than the Army Field Manual every day. The irony is, Obama has so denuded our terrorist interrogation capability that the Detroit police department has more tools at its disposal to interrogate a terrorist than the still non-operational HIG.
That is pathetic — and dangerous for our country.
It is inarguably incompetence in national security, one that thankfully got exposed without anyone dying.