High Value

Posted on January 25, 2010

In congressional hearings last week, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair said that the Obama administration’s High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group (HIG), not law-enforcement officers, should have been used to interrogate the Christmas Day bomber. Blair said the HIG “was created exactly for this purpose,” adding, “We did not invoke the HIG in this case; we should have.” He even used the word “duh” to emphasize his point.

But later, after the hearings, Blair issued a statement “clarifying” his remarks. He said the FBI “received important intelligence at that time [from Abdulmutallab], drawing on the FBI’s expertise in interrogation that will be available in the HIG once it is fully operational.”

The last five words were a stunning admission. One year after President Obama dismantled the CIA’s capability to interrogate high-value terrorists, the program that is supposed to take its place is still not “fully operational.” We currently have no capability in place to conduct high-value-terrorist interrogations.

Why was the HIG not ready? Because the Obama administration did not think it necessary. Under Obama, the administration is no longer trying to capture high-value terrorists alive for questioning. So when (much to their surprise) they found themselves with a high-value detainee in their custody, they were caught completely unprepared. Without consulting intelligence and counterterrorism officials, Attorney General Eric Holder directed that he be given a lawyer and told he had the “right to remain silent” — a right he has duly exercised.

This is a massive intelligence failure on a number of levels. It cost us invaluable time-sensitive intelligence. From al-Qaeda’s vantage point, Abdulmutallab was supposed to be dead — vaporized with the plane that he was planning to explode. As soon as they learned that he was in custody, they began scrambling to cover his tracks closing their e-mail accounts, cell-phone numbers, and bank accounts; putting terrorist leaders and operatives he knew about into hiding; and shutting down other trails of intelligence he might give us to follow. Every minute, every hour, every day that passed while Abdulmutallab exercised his “right to remain silent” cost us invaluable counterterrorism opportunities. Obama officials have said that they can still get information from him in the plea-bargaining process. Putting aside the question of why we should reduce his punishment in exchange for information, by the time we reach a plea deal it will be too late — the information will be useless.

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