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Intending to die in the act of destroying a jetliner, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab instead landed alive in Detroit as a kind of message in a bottle from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. He knew more about its recruiting, training, and operations than anyone who is ever likely to fall into our arms babbling like a scared 23-year-old.
But the Obama administration shut him down. It didn’t go so far as to tell the Customs and Border Protection officers to cover their ears and try not to listen when Abdulmutallab made incriminating statements on the initial ride to the hospital, but it came close. It had an FBI team inform Abdulmutallab of his right to remain silent, after which he predictably remained silent.
This is brazen self-sabotage. We are in a war of intelligence. People risk their lives every day to get the information to understand the terror networks arrayed against us and identify specific threats. Why would we pre-emptively silence a priceless source of timely intelligence?
It literally didn’t even occur to the administration to do otherwise. Top terrorism officials weren’t consulted. The director of the National Counterterrorism Center, the director of National Intelligence, the FBI director, and the secretary of Homeland Security were all out of the loop. Some as-yet-unidentified top Justice Department official, who probably is known around the office as “general,” made the call.
According to an Associated Press account, after Abdulmutallab chatted with customs officials about his plot, FBI agents showed up and talked to him for about 50 minutes. He told them he’d worked with al-Qaeda. The agents didn’t Mirandize him, relying on an exception in cases involving an imminent threat to public safety. Then, a new FBI team arrived with instructions from Washington to read Abdulmutallab his rights. It’s the last we’ve heard from him.
Robert Gibbs maintains that FBI agents “got all that they could out of him.” This is such a flimsy claim, it’s hard to see how even the press flack for the most transparent administration ever can believe it. The Washington Post reported of Abdulmutallab a few weeks ago that “authorities are holding out hope that he will change his mind and cooperate with the probe.” Holding out hope might be appropriate for second marriages, but not for counterterrorism.
Abdulmutallab couldn’t possibly have been interrogated thoroughly in 50 minutes, even if the FBI agents in Detroit were experts on al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and were armed with the latest intelligence, which they weren’t. As Marc A. Thiessen explains in his excellent new book, Courting Disaster, eliciting information from a terrorist is a necessarily involved process. Whatever the detainee says is verified against other sources, and, as information builds, interrogators hone in on the key details.
To make this possible, Abdulmutallab should have been declared an unlawful combatant and sent to a military brig until such time as we were genuinely confident we had learned all we could from him. Then, he could be transferred back to the civilian justice system, on the model of Jose Padilla or, most infamously, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
It’s not as if the civilian case against him would have been jeopardized. When you are caught with a bomb in your pants, with dozens of witnesses to your crime, you are going to jail for a very long time (unless, perhaps, a hapless administration has to strike a plea deal to try to get you talking again).
When testifying before Congress about why the administration didn’t consider going this route, Dennis Blair said it mistakenly had focused only on overseas people for interrogation — then, amazingly, tapped his forehead and said, “Duh.” He told Congress that the handling of Abdulmutallab should have been a matter for the new “high-value interrogation unit,” apparently unaware that the unit hasn’t yet been set up.
Heads should roll, and Pres. Barack Obama should reverse course on Abdulmutallab. In the meantime, this resource sits in a cell and consults his lawyer, mute to us.
– Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. © 2010 by King Features Syndicate.