The Christmas bomber speaks … finally

Marc Thiessen Contributor
Font Size:

After five weeks of exercising his “right to remain silent,” the Christmas bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab has finally begun cooperating, and according to The Washington Post is now “providing FBI interrogators with useful intelligence about his training and contacts.” Administration officials are hawking this development as a vindication of their patient approach to Abdulmutallab’s questioning. The Post even declares that this “[r]esult counters recent criticism of the case’s handling.”

That anyone can consider five weeks of utter silence from this high-value terrorist as a success is stunning. Abudulmutallab was supposed to be vaporized along with Northwest Flight 253. The moment al-Qaida learned that he had survived and was in U.S. government custody, they began taking countermeasures to cover his tracks.

Every hour, every day, every week that went by gave them precious time to close bank accounts, e-mail addresses, phone numbers he knew about, and shut down training camps, safe houses, and other intelligence leads he could have given us. Terrorists he knew about have been put into hiding, and other leads that were hot in the days immediately following his capture have since gone cold. The intelligence he possessed was perishable. Each moment that passed that he was not speaking meant lost counterterrorism opportunities.

The mishandling of Abdulmutallab’s questioning is an intelligence failure of massive proportions. And it highlights the problem with the Obama administration’s approach to terrorist interrogation. The administration’s approach is built on a law-enforcement model unsuited for the challenges of the war on terror. Here is why:

In law enforcement, interrogators generally question terrorists after an attack (or in the case of Abdulmutallab, an attempted attack) has occurred; their goal is to extract a confession in order to secure a conviction. In such circumstances, patience is a virtue. The wheels of justice turn slowly, and interrogators have all the time in the world to build rapport with the criminal, or use the plea bargaining process to get him to talk.

But in a time of war, speed is of the essence. Interrogators must get information from the terrorist quickly, before an attack occurs. Their goal is not to secure a conviction; it is to stop the terrorists from striking in the first place. In such circumstances, patience is not a virtue; patience can be deadly. And time is on the side of the terrorist withholding the information. The longer he drags the interrogation out, the better the chance that he can buy enough time for his comrades on the outside to carry out the attack or at least cover his tracks. His incentive is to hold out as long as possible, and then to provide nominal or outdated information, so he can appear like he is cooperating when he is in fact lying to cover up the important details as long as he can.

In a letter to senators this week, Attorney General Eric Holder declared that there is no “known mechanism to persuade an uncooperative individual to talk to the government that has been proven more effective than the criminal justice system.” With all due respect, the attorney general is flat wrong. The CIA interrogation program did just that.

According to the CIA inspector general’s report, Abu Zubaydah, Abd al Rahim al-Nashiri, and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed all tried to hold out, mislead, and withhold information when they were first questioned by the CIA. Before enhanced interrogations, the inspector general says, KSM provided information that was “outdated, inaccurate, or incomplete”; after enhanced interrogation, KSM became “the most prolific” of the detainees in CIA custody, providing actionable intelligence that led to the capture of many of his key operatives. Before enhanced interrogations, the inspector general says, the USS Cole bomber al-Nashiri provided only “historical information;” after enhanced interrogations, “he provided information about his most current operational planning.” Before enhanced interrogations, Abu Zubaydah provided what he thought was nominal information; after enhanced interrogations, Zubaydah “increased production” and provided intelligence that led to the capture of Ramzi bin al-Shibh just as he was completing plans for the attack on Heathrow airport. In each of these cases, high value detainees were holding back vital intelligence until they underwent enhanced interrogations—after which they stopped resisting and told us what they knew.

These facts make the whole debate about whether we can get the same information without enhanced interrogations moot. Let’s accept the possibility that we could have gotten the terrorists to give us the same information using law enforcement techniques—eventually. As the case of Abdulmutallab shows, there is no question that it getting this information takes much longer using a law enforcement approach.

This is not to say that enhanced interrogation techniques would have been necessary in the case of Abdulmutallab. Two-thirds of those questioned by the CIA had no enhanced techniques applied to them at all—and only three required waterboarding. Simply the existence of a CIA interrogation program was enough to get most to make the decision to cooperate. And cooperate they did. According to the Justice Department, on average it took between three to seven days for the CIA to break most terrorists in their custody—and just 15 days in the case of the most resistant detainees. In other words, the CIA got terrorists to stop resisting and Courting Disasterstart providing intelligence quickly, in a situation where time was critical. By contrast, it has taken the Obama administration five weeks to get Abdulmutallab to speak.

That difference in time could mean the difference between a thwarted attack and another 9/11 in our midst. Let’s hope that is not the price America has to pay for the mishandling of Abdulmutallab.

Marc A. Thiessen is the author of Courting Disaster: How the CIA Kept America Safe and How Barack Obama Is Inviting the Next Attack. For more information go to:www.courtingdisaster.com