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Incoherent Policy, Incoherently Executed, Part II


Even the Washington Post  --  ever the cheerleader for a Hope for the Best national security policy  --  gets it, sort of, as respects the botched interrogation of the Christmas day bomber.  In today's editorial, the Post states:

UMAR FAROUK Abdulmutallab was nabbed in Detroit on board Northwest Flight 253 after trying unsuccessfully to ignite explosives sewn into his underwear. The Obama administration had three options: It could charge him in federal court. It could detain him as an enemy belligerent. Or it could hold him for prolonged questioning and later indict him, ensuring that nothing Mr. Abdulmutallab said during questioning was used against him in court.

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.

The fight against an unconventional enemy such as al-Qaeda cannot be waged exclusively or effectively through any single approach. Just as it would be a mistake to view all terrorist acts as law enforcement challenges, so would it be unwise to deal with all such incidents as acts of war. All paths must be seriously considered before a determination is made.
The administration claims Mr. Abdulmutallab provided valuable information -- and probably exhausted his knowledge of al-Qaeda operations -- before he clammed up. This was immediately after he was read his Miranda rights and provided with a court-appointed lawyer. The truth is, we may never know whether the administration made the right call or whether it squandered a valuable opportunity.  ###

What the Post still fails to understand is that the administration's "myopic, irresponsible and potentially dangerous" blunder in this case was less a result of one bureaucratic miscommunication than of the inherent confusion at the base of its thinking about terrorism and the law.  As long as there is indecision about whether violent jihadists should be treated as standard criminals or as the illegal combatants they are, blunders like this are inevitable.  The administration's policy is not the nuanced approach the Post takes it to be.  It is  wishful thinking masquerading as a nuanced approach.

Still, the administration can do something to redeem itself.  As Scott Johnson has written:  "[W]hat does President Obama think? If the FBI agents made a mistake, as they obviously did, isn't this one mistake that can be fixed? The United States Attorney can dismiss the indictment against Abdulmutallab and turn Abdulmutallab over to the armed forces of the United States. I see no reason why Abdulmutallab can't be detained as an enemy combatant available for questioning as the president sees fit. Unless I'm missing something, it's not too late to try to rectify the mistake.

"Rather than try to rectify the mistake, however, the administration went into damage control mode after the hearing. The damage the administration is concerned with correcting is to their public relations rather than to the national security of the United States. Will anyone call them on it?"


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