Out of the Loop (and in the Doghouse)
In one respect, Scott Brown's Senate election in Massachusetts (and his subsequent arrival in Washington) came at a very opportune moment for the Obama Administration.
Sure, Mr. Brown's victory derailed ObamaCare and will possibly force a re-working of the President's entire agenda for 2010. But look on the bright side: Scott Brown's stunning win diverted attention away from the White House's latest national security snafu.
We refer to some rather embarrassing testimony on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, while much of the nation was preoccupied with the Massachusetts election results. Appearing before the Senate Homeland Security Committee, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair admitted that intel officials bungled the handling of Farouk Abdulmutallab, the underwear bomber who tried to bring down a Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day.
Specifically, Mr. Blair told the committee that Abdulmutallab should have been interrogated by a special team that handles high value targets. But the spooks never got a crack at the Nigerian suspect. As Blair told Congress, he was never consulted about how the suspect should be handled.
Indeed, the nation's intel apparatus was apparently out of the loop as the FBI decided to treat the would-be bomber as they would a criminal. Mr. Blair's lieutenants were out of the loop as well. Then, after less than an hour of questioning, Abdulmutallab was read his Miranda rights and provided with legal counsel. At that point, he stopped cooperating with authorities, leaving key questions unanswered.
And, it gets worse. Remember that team that's supposed to interrogate high-value suspects? It was hailed as a key element of Mr. Obama's plan (unveiled last year) to end the "torture" of terror detainees and shut down the facility at Guantanamo Bay. But as Blair informed the Homeland Security panel, that highly-touted team has never been formed.
For his candor, Blair is in trouble with Congressional Republicans--and the White House. According to Newsweek's "Declassified" blog, administration officials have described the DNI (a retired Navy admiral) as "misinformed," and have ordered him to correct his remarks. Sure enough, Blair released a statement only an hour later, claiming that his comments were "misconstrued."
In other words, Admiral Blair is feeling the heat for telling the truth. The nation's intelligence chief was never consulted in the aftermath of an attempted terrorist attack that could have destroyed an airliner and killed hundreds of passengers. He also claims that the (limited) FBI interrogation provided important information, although you've got to wonder just how much Abdulmutallab divulged in hour before FBI agents advised him of his "rights."
There's also the troubling matter of why the High-Value Interrogation Group (or HIG as it's known) still isn't in operation. Months after the President ordered its creation, attorneys are still devising a charter for the group, suggesting that it is months away from achieving operational status. Until then, who's in charge of interrogating suspected terrorists? After being pilloried by politicians and the press, both the CIA and the military have grown skittish; we're guessing that most of the questioning will be conducted by the FBI, until the HIG--staffed by experts from intelligence and law enforcement--becomes operational.
Blair's disturbing admissions also raise another question, namely, who made the call to treat Farouk Abdulmutallab as a criminal suspect, rather than an accused terrorist? The administration claims the decision was made by agents from the FBI's Detroit field office, who met the plane when it landed. But that sounds a bit suspect. Would you, as a Special Agent in Charge be willing to stake your career on the handling of a suspected terrorist--a decision you made without consulting your superiors in Washington?
There's little doubt that senior FBI officials (and probably, Attorney General Eric Holder) were alerted when Abdulmutallab was removed from that Northwest flight. And the decision to "Mirandize" was likely made by high-ranking officials at the bureau, if not Mr. Holder himself. As Senate Republicans have suggested, the handling of Mr. Abdulmutallab--and the decision-making process behind it--requires a detailed explanation from the administration.
Don't hold your breath waiting for answers. Judging by their reaction to Admiral Blair's testimony, it's clear that the White House wants this controversy to go away. We're guessing that the DNI won't be as forthcoming during his next visit to Capitol Hill.