Monday, January 25, 2010

A 50-minute interrogation just isn't enough time

The Associated Press runs a leaked story about the interrogation of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Clearly, some in the FBI want to push back against the perception that they messed up in how they dealt with the terrorist. What is revealed is that this administration has absolutely no plan in operation to deal with a captured terrorist. The vaunted high-value interrogation teams that Obama ordered to be established in one of his first executive orders still aren't in place. And it also emerges, despite administration claims that they got sufficient intelligence from their first interrogation of him, that the FBI actually only had 50 minutes of interrogation before he underwent medical treatment.
Shortly after 3:30 p.m., FBI agents began interviewing the suspect in his hospital room, joined by a CBP officer and an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent.

The suspect spoke openly, said one official, talking in detail about what he'd done and the planning that went into the attack. Other counterterrorism officials speaking on condition of anonymity said it was during this questioning that he admitted he had been trained and instructed in the plot by al-Qaida operatives in Yemen.

The interview lasted about 50 minutes. Before they began questioning Abdulmutallab, the FBI agents decided not to give him his Miranda warnings providing his right to remain silent.
After the treatment, he was given his Miranda rights and he clammed up. Despite finding out that he had been trained in Yemen by Al Qaeda, there was no further interrogation due to his getting Miranda rights. All they had was that 50 minute first interview. So don't try to sell the story that they got all they could have from him and then decided to give him his rights. They were just starting.

Here was perhaps the personification of a ticking time bomb prisoner and all they were allowed was that 50 minute window of interrogation before Holder decided to treat him as a United States criminal with all the constitutional rights that that entails.

The FBI was clearly more concerned about getting evidence that would hold up in court than in exacting more information about possible other terrorist attacks emerging from Yemen. As far as prosecuting this guy, wouldn't there have been enough evidence from the witnesses on the airplane who saw him trying to light his undies on fire to compensate for any inability to use his confession in court? But somehow, in the topsy-turvy way that Eric Holder and Barack Obama conceive of the war on terror, it was more important to build a solid case against Abdulmutallab than to gain more intelligence to forestall other potential bombers.

UPDATE: Byron York notes Robert Gibbs' extremely weak answers on Fox News Sunday when asked about it. Check out this weaseling.
On "Fox News Sunday," host Chris Wallace asked White House spokesman Robert Gibbs whether President Obama was informed of the decision to read Abdulmutallab his Miranda rights before or after it was done. Gibbs avoided the question, saying, "That decision was made by the Justice Department and the FBI, with experienced FBI interrogators." Gibbs stressed that "Abdulmutallab was interrogated and valuable intelligence was gotten as a result of that interrogation."

Wallace pressed. "But we now find out he was interrogated for 50 minutes," he said to Gibbs. "When they came back, he was read his Miranda rights and he clammed up."

"No," Gibbs answered. "Again, he was interrogated. Valuable intelligence was gotten based on those interrogations. And I think the Department of Justice and the -- made the right decision, as did those FBI agents."

"Let me just press one last question," Wallace said. "You really don't think that if you'd interrogated him longer that you might have gotten more information, since we now know that Al Qaeda in Yemen -- "

"Well, FBI interrogators believe they got valuable intelligence and were able to get all that they could out of him," Gibbs said.

"All they could?" Wallace asked.

"Yeah," Gibbs said.

Bottom line: Gibbs did not dispute that the FBI interviewed Abdulmutallab for just 50 minutes. But Gibbs maintained that agents learned everything that was possible to learn from the accused terrorist, who was trained by, and presumably knew about, the activities of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. If the agents learned everything that was possible to learn from Abdulmutallab in just 50 minutes, it was likely a world record of interrogation.
They're more concerned about convicting Abdulmutallab and don't realize that a conviction isn't the most important thing at the moment. Getting intelligence about those Yemeni terrorist training camps is. But Holder and Obama don't seem to understand this basic fact. And their myopia is extremely dangerous for the entire world.

UPDATE II: Stephen Hayes, who has been a bulldog on how the Obama administration is supposedly running the war on terror, has more. Apparently, the FBI did not have the background information that other agencies had on Abdulmutallab at the time they interviewed him in that 50 minutes. Remember, this was the screw up that all the intelligence officials were apologizing for not having coordinated prior to the attack. They even had CIA intercepts about the time he spent in Yemen. Well, they still hadn't put it all together at the time the FBI conducted its one and only interrogation of Abdulmutallab.
Indeed, THE WEEKLY STANDARD has learned that the FBI interviewed Abdulmutallab without this complete background and without access to the intelligence collected by other elements of the U.S. intelligence community. How much intelligence did we have? Abdulmutallab's father provided a first-person account of his son's radicalization during a meeting with U.S. officials on November 19. A draft dossier on Abdulmutallab sat in the computer of an analyst in Langley, Virginia, at the same time the FBI interrogated him at University Hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

The FBI did not ask about the information in these intercepts. Wouldn't it be helpful to do so now? The CIA dossier on Abdulmutallab has grown by orders of magnitude since his detention a month ago. Wouldn't it be useful to ask him questions about its contents? Abdulmutallab lived in Yemen for four months. How many details about his life there did the FBI get in their 50-minute interview? He was involved with pro-jihadist groups as a student in London. Did the FBI even know to ask about this?

Perhaps more important, the FBI has lost the opportunity to ask Abdulmutallab about intelligence that U.S. government is collecting now. In the weeks leading up to the attack, the intelligence community had information on "Umar Farouk" and on "the Nigerian" and on an attack being planned in Yemen. There is, without a doubt, the same kind of raw, uncorrelated intelligence among the vast collection of NSA intercepts today. It's entirely possible that Abdulmutallab would be in a position to give meaning to these pieces of information in a way that would at least help us understand al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and, at best, help prevent a coming attack.

For example, let's say that tomorrow the NSA intercepts a phone call that includes a discussion of "Abdul Rahman in Sana'a" who is planning a trip to the United States in the coming months. And let's further suppose that this "Abdul Rahman" is someone unknown to the U.S. intelligence community but who was mentioned in earlier intercepts involving Abdulmutallab. Wouldn't it be helpful to grill Adbulmutallab about his associate?

The consequences of these mistakes could be huge. "The political decision to move terrorist interrogations to the White House has put Americans' safety in jeopardy," said Senator Kit Bond, ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee. "If bin Laden were captured tomorrow, who would interrogate him? The White House doesn't have an answer."

It may be worse than that. The question may not be who would interrogate him but whether we would even have that opportunity. Senator Lindsey Graham asked Attorney General Eric Holder about this at a congressional hearing in November.

"Let me ask you this. Let's say we capture him tomorrow. When does custodial interrogation begin in his case? If we captured bin Laden tomorrow, would he be entitled to Miranda warning at the moment of capture?"

Holder responded: "Again, I'm not -- that all depends."

It depends. Eric Holder can imagine a scenario in which a U.S. government official reads Osama bin Laden his Miranda rights at the moment of capture.

Remember all of this the next time you hear an Obama administration official insist that we are at war with al Qaeda.
Obama's big innovation was setting up these panels to interview high-value targets. But now, a year after he shut down the procedures that had been used in the Bush administration, they still haven't set them up. Even if they had decided to expend more effort on interrogating Abdulmutallab, it's not clear that they have a clue how they could have gone about it.