Thursday, January 07, 2010

Missing opportunities

The WSJ has a powerful editorial reminding us of the Ramzi Yousef case. He was the guy who masterminded the first attack on the World Trade Center back in 1993. He was tried in criminal court and is now serving time in federal prison. His trial is the model that the Obama administration is proud to follow for Khalid Sheik Mohammed and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Rather than looking at the outcome of a convicted terrorist serving time, think instead of the opportunity missed to interrogate Yousef.
We now know that when Yousef was captured, in 1995, al Qaeda leaders were working feverishly to attack American targets. Yousef's uncle is none other than Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of 9/11 and one of Yousef's co-conspirators in the failed Bojinka plot to blow up airliners across the Pacific Ocean.

Yet as far as we know, Yousef told U.S. interrogators little or nothing about KSM's plots and strategy once he was in U.S. custody. This isn't surprising, since once he was in the criminal justice system Yousef was granted a lawyer and all the legal protections against cooperating with U.S. interrogators. To this day, we don't recall any official claim that Yousef has provided useful intelligence of the kind that KSM, Abu Zubaydah and other al Qaeda leaders later did when they were interrogated by the CIA.
We'll never know what would have had happened if we'd followed a different path with Yousef and interrogated him as an enemy combatant in 1993. What might we have found out about KSM's plans for what became the 9/11 attacks?

And we'll never know if Abdulmutallab might have yielded up useful intelligence about the terrorist camps in Yemen.

Instead we have the incoherent arguments from Obama's top counterterrorism official, John Brennan, that perhaps we'll get information from Abdulmutallab by offering him a plea bargain. Think of that - a federal counterterrorism official is thinking plea bargain for a guy who was all set to kill close to 300 people on that Northwest airline.
In other words, because the Obama Administration is loath to interrogate terrorists outside the criminal justice system, our only lever to get them to talk is offering a legal reprieve. This is bizarre to say the least, and self-destructive if it turns out that Abdulmutallab has information that could help prevent future attacks.
Once again, this administration doesn't seem to think of the tradeoffs involved in their decisions. Yes, it's fine to have confidence in our criminal justice system, but they should at least have considered what we're losing out on by their decision. Usually we get stories leaked about how hard the President and his advisers are struggling with their tough decisions. We haven't heard a peep that they actually even thought of another choice with how to treat Abdulmutallab. So we'll never know of the opportunities missed and the information of terrorist plots that we will remain ignorant of just as we missed that opportunity with Yousef.

Michael Mukasey weighs in on this subject today. Although he doesn't name him, we know that that official he's ridiculing is John Brennan.
Even as the initial spin was in progress, Abdulmutallab was chattering like a magpie to his FBI captors about having been trained by al Qaeda and about there being more where he came from.

Braggadocio aside, he was certainly aware of who had prepared the potentially deadly mix that was sewn in his underwear, who had trained him, where the training had taken place, whether there was in fact a South Asian man described by two other passengers who helped him talk his way on to the plane, and a good deal more. Such facts are valuable but evanescent intelligence. The location of people—and with it our ability to find and neutralize them—is subject to rapid change.

Had Abdulmutallab been turned over immediately to interrogators intent on gathering intelligence, valuable facts could have been gathered and perhaps acted upon. Indeed, a White House spokesman has confirmed that Abdulmutallab did disclose some actionable intelligence before he fell silent on advice of counsel. Nor is it any comfort to be told, as we were, by the senior intelligence adviser referred to above—he of the "no smoking gun"—that we can learn facts from Abdulmutallab as part of a plea bargaining process in connection with his prosecution.

Whatever that official thinks he knows about the plea bargaining process, he certainly should know that the kind of facts that Abdulmutallab might be expected to know have a shelf life that is a lot shorter than the plea bargaining process, assuming such a process ever gets started.

Holding Abdulmutallab for a time in military custody, regardless of where he is ultimately to be charged, would have been entirely lawful—even in the view of the current administration, which has taken the position that it needs no further legislative authority to hold dangerous detainees even for a lengthy period in the United States. Then we could decide at relative leisure where to charge him—whether before a military commission or before a civilian court. In Abdulmutallab's case, it would hardly make a difference, given the nature of most of the evidence against him.
That makes so much more sense from the blather that we got from Brennan. It's not a good thing for this country when the country's head of Homeland Security and the President's top counterterrorism official are figures of ridicule rather than confidence.