In congressional hearings last week, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair said that the Obama administration’s High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group (HIG), not law-enforcement officers, should have been used to interrogate the Christmas Day bomber. Blair said the HIG “was created exactly for this purpose,” adding, “We did not invoke the HIG in this case; we should have.” He even used the word “duh” to emphasize his point.
But later, after the hearings, Blair issued a statement “clarifying” his remarks. He said the FBI “received important intelligence at that time [from Abdulmutallab], drawing on the FBI’s expertise in interrogation that will be available in the HIG once it is fully operational.”
The last five words were a stunning admission. One year after President Obama dismantled the CIA’s capability to interrogate high-value terrorists, the program that is supposed to take its place is still not “fully operational.” We currently have no capability in place to conduct high-value-terrorist interrogations.
Why was the HIG not ready? Because the Obama administration did not think it necessary. Under Obama, the administration is no longer trying to capture high-value terrorists alive for questioning. So when (much to their surprise) they found themselves with a high-value detainee in their custody, they were caught completely unprepared. Without consulting intelligence and counterterrorism officials, Attorney General Eric Holder directed that he be given a lawyer and told he had the “right to remain silent” — a right he has duly exercised.
This is a massive intelligence failure on a number of levels. It cost us invaluable time-sensitive intelligence. From al-Qaeda’s vantage point, Abdulmutallab was supposed to be dead — vaporized with the plane that he was planning to explode. As soon as they learned that he was in custody, they began scrambling to cover his tracks – closing their e-mail accounts, cell-phone numbers, and bank accounts; putting terrorist leaders and operatives he knew about into hiding; and shutting down other trails of intelligence he might give us to follow. Every minute, every hour, every day that passed while Abdulmutallab exercised his “right to remain silent” cost us invaluable counterterrorism opportunities. Obama officials have said that they can still get information from him in the plea-bargaining process. Putting aside the question of why we should reduce his punishment in exchange for information, by the time we reach a plea deal it will be too late — the information will be useless.
As I explain in Courting Disaster, even if the HIG were “fully operational,” we might be better off with Abdulmutallab in the hands of the Detroit Police Department — because under the rules established by the Obama administration, local law-enforcement officials actually have more tools at their disposal to interrogate common criminals than our military and intelligence officials have to interrogate captured terrorists. The Obama administration has limited the techniques available to the HIG to those contained in the Army Field Manual — a document that governs the interrogation of enemy prisoners of war with full Geneva Convention protections — even though there is a wide universe of lawful techniques beyond those included in the Army Field Manual that could be used to question high-value terrorists.
Local police use techniques beyond the Army Field Manual every day. For example, police detectives and district attorneys regularly use the threat of execution to get ordinary criminals to confess — offering to take capital punishment off the table if a criminal cops a plea or turns in his accomplices. Under the Army Field Manual this is not permitted; detainees cannot be threatened in any way. In other words, President Obama has so denuded our intelligence agencies’ interrogation capabilities that putting the HIG in charge of his interrogation would likely have been a useless exercise.
The irony is that the CIA interrogation program Obama inherited from the Bush administration — and eliminated on his second day in office — contained none of the techniques to which Obama had objected on the campaign trail. Waterboarding and the other more coercive techniques were no longer part of the approved program (though the CIA director could still request permission from the president and the attorney general to use them on an especially tough case). The techniques Obama eliminated were: the facial hold, attention grasp, tummy slap, facial slap, dietary manipulation (liquid Ensure instead of regular meals), and mild sleep deprivation. That’s it. Every one of these techniques was demonstrated for Obama by CIA Director Mike Hayden during the presidential transition.
Obama officials were surprised to learn this was all that the program entailed. Yet these techniques worked. In 2007, a terrorist named Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi was captured. He was the highest-ranking al-Qaeda leader taken alive in many years — a former member of Saddam Hussein’s military, he had joined al-Qaeda in the 1990s, served for a time as a member of al-Qaeda’s ruling Shura council, and risen to become a senior bin Laden adviser and a top paramilitary commander in Afghanistan. When he was taken into custody, agency officials told him, “We’re the CIA.” He replied, “I’ve heard of you guys. I’ll tell you anything you need to know.” And he did — because he was not aware that the worst he would face was a tummy slap and a little lost sleep.
Today, this could never happen — because Barack Obama declassified all the documents explaining the limits of our interrogation techniques and restricted our interrogators to the Army Field Manual, which is readily available on the Internet. Terrorists now know they have nothing to fear — and thus have no incentive to talk.
On Christmas Day, we were given an unexpected gift. A terrorist fell into our hands who possessed invaluable intelligence: the locations of the camps where he trained; the names of the people who trained him; the identities of those who trained alongside him for follow-up missions; the phone numbers, e-mail addresses, and bank-account numbers of those who sent him to kill Americans and may be sending others to do the same. We questioned him for 50 minutes, then read him his rights. If we get hit again, we will look back at that decision as the worst intelligence failure since Sept. 11, 2001.
– Marc Thiessen is the author of Courting Disaster: How the CIA Kept America Safe and How Barack Obama Is Inviting the Next Attack. For more information, click here.