It’s no secret that we’ve been worried about the judgment of certain administration officials charged with designing and carrying out President Obama’s domestic counterterrorism policy. In the days after the failed Christmas bombing, we doubted that designating Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab as an enemy combatant for interrogation had even been considered in the rush to charge him as a criminal defendant. We’ve been no more encouraged by the missteps in the handling of the Khalid Sheikh Mohammed trial.
But we are happy to report that the White House appears to be taking steps, halting though they may be, to rectify some of its most serious mistakes. Last week, the White House let it be known that the president would take a direct role in deciding where and in what forum — military commission or civilian trial — KSM would be tried, effectively signaling that it had taken over the process from Attorney General Eric Holder. This is an important step toward reversing course and trying KSM in a military commission.
It also represents a major victory for Rahm Emanuel, who, it has been widely reported, strongly opposed trying KSM in civilian court, and has also opposed a number of the attorney general’s other moves, such as investigating CIA interrogators for alleged abuses of terrorist detainees after Obama had personally promised that would not happen. Emanuel is now in charge of working with Republicans and moderate Democrats in Congress to find a solution.
Over the weekend, the White House dispatched one of its more respected figures, National Security Adviser James Jones, to the Sunday talk shows to signal a course correction on another front — the decision to Mirandize Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and treat him as a criminal defendant. Although Jones stuck to the administration’s line that Abdulmutallab was providing valuable information in civilian custody (because it apparently has worked out some kind of deal with him), he acknowledged to Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday that the administration’s national-security team “did not support the president as well as he should have been supported.”
The problem, Jones admitted, was that the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group (HIG) was not operational when Abdulmutallab was captured, even though it had been announced five months earlier and a full year had passed since President Obama shut down the CIA’s interrogation program for high-value detainees. During the interview, Jones asked himself the question, “In retrospect, would it have been better if we had [the HIG] set up?” He answered “yes,” and went on to say that “we constantly learn from our experiences.” To Candy Crowley on CNN’s State of the Union, Jones said much the same: “What we learned [from the Abdulmutallab situation] is that we will be able to move — we should move much more quickly to have an integrated team arrive very quickly to make the best judgment possible as to which way we should proceed in the future.”
Translation: Instead of reflexively and unthinkingly Mirandizing Abdulmutallab and letting the Justice Department alone run the show, the White House in the future will be sure to engage the HIG — which will be made up of counterterrorism and interrogation experts from across the federal government, including the intelligence services, the military, and law enforcement — to make an informed decision on whether Mirandizing a captured terrorist or treating him as an enemy combatant (with no right to remain silent and no right to a lawyer during his interrogation) is more likely to yield useful intelligence.
Jones’s willingness to admit error and change course is heartening. Which makes the behavior of his deputy John Brennan that much more perplexing. In interviews the prior weekend, Brennan — the president’s chief counterterrorism adviser, who reports to Jones and has become infamous for his misinformed and unhinged attacks on critics of the decision to Mirandize Abdulmutallab — made the bizarre claim that telling four Republicans in Congress that Abdulmutallab was “in FBI custody” was the same thing as telling them he had been Mirandized. This was a ridiculous claim on its face, made even more so by the fact that the White House had previously told lawmakers that captured terrorists would not necessarily be read Miranda warnings, as Marc Thiessen has discussed. Ever since, Brennan has been beaten up by the lawmakers, with some calling for his resignation.
Now, the White House has released a timeline that shows Abdulmutallab was Mirandized about nine hours after his arrest. Unfortunately, only 50 minutes of those nine pre-Miranda hours were used to question Abdulmutallab, but we already knew that. What is new is the timeline reveals that in the hours before Abdulmutallab was Mirandized, Brennan convened a conference call in which various members of the national-security team participated. Mirandizing Abdulmutallab was not discussed on that call. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that the four Republicans supposedly briefed by Brennan were also not told. We doubt that Brennan, who is neither a lawyer nor an expert on criminal constitutional law, himself knew that Mirandizing Abdulmutallab would inevitably happen once he was in FBI custody. Perhaps the Justice Department representatives on that call knew, but they didn’t say a word. This helps explain why the heads of the intelligence services, Defense Department, and Homeland Security have testified to Congress that they were never consulted on Mirandizing Abdulmutallab. The timeline also shows that the possibility of designating him as an enemy combatant never came up. This has the distinct feel of a haphazard conference call put together at the last moment on Christmas Day. No wonder Jones wants the HIG operational to be for the next crisis.
After his disastrous television appearances, Brennan was relegated this weekend to giving a speech at the Islamic Center at New York University. Even there, however, he again said something profoundly misguided. Discussing the rate of recidivism of detainees released from Guantanamo, which some have put as high as 20 percent, Brennan said: “People sometimes use that figure, 20 percent, [and] say, ‘Oh my goodness, one out of five detainees returned to some type of extremist activity.’ You know, the American penal system, the recidivism rate is up to something about 50 percent or so, as far as return to crime. Twenty percent isn’t that bad.”
We’re not making this quote up. The president’s top counterterrorism adviser actually said that a 20 percent terrorist recidivism rate was good enough for government work. About 800 people have been detained at Guantanamo and about 600 have been released or turned over to the custody of other governments. Twenty percent means Brennan thinks it’s not a bad day’s work if 120 or so returned to terrorism. If that’s his definition of success, we would hate to see what failure looks like. Sen. Lindsey Graham, for one, doesn’t care to know and has joined in calls for Brennan’s resignation. Senator Graham’s views matter to the White House because he’s their best hope for a bipartisan solution to Guantanamo.
The problem here is not so much the substance of what Brennan said — there is no definitive study on the percentage of released detainees who return to terrorism, though it is abundantly clear that some have (a fact the Bush administration emphasized in explaining the dangers of closing Guantanamo). What is disturbing is what these comments reveal about Brennan’s mindset. These are not stock swindlers, or identity thieves, or even drug smugglers. This is not Bernie Madoff or even John Gotti. These are people bent on slaughtering Americans, at home and abroad, in the name of jihad and as an act of war. Twenty percent should not be an acceptable recidivism rate by anyone’s standards.
That is, unless your preferred point of comparison is our criminal-justice system, which does have a depressingly high rate of recidivism. What does it say about the president’s top counterterrorism adviser that he instinctively seizes on the criminal-recidivism rate as the measure of success in the war against al-Qaeda? It tells us that he does not really see this as a war at all.
This may explain why Attorney General Holder was able to take the lead on both the KSM trial and Mirandizing Abdulmutallab, with terrible political results for the White House. Brennan, who is supposed to be in charge of coordinating the administration’s counterterrorism efforts, saw Holder as the best person to direct its policy. As we have discussed before, you can’t really blame the nation’s top law-enforcement officer for bringing a law-enforcement mentality to the war on terror. But you can blame the White House for putting the attorney general in charge of our defense against al-Qaeda’s attacks on the homeland while relegating the intelligence services and the military to the backseat.
It would appear the battle lines have been drawn in the White House: Jones and Emanuel versus Brennan and Holder. For too long, the Brennan/Holder side was winning. It now looks like the Jones/Emanuel side has the advantage. Time will tell who ends up on top. We know which side we’re rooting for.
– Dana M. Perino is former press secretary to Pres. George W. Bush. Bill Burck is a former federal prosecutor and deputy counsel to President Bush.