Right-wing media distort Blair testimony to claim treatment of Abdulmutallab made America less safe

››› ››› ADAM SHAH & TOM ALLISON

Rightwing media outlets have distorted testimony by Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair to buttress their false claims that the decision to process alleged Christmas Day bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab through the civilian criminal justice system prevented his interrogation and has made the United States less safe. In fact, in remarks Blair later stated were "misconstrued," he stated that an interrogation team that is not actually operational "should have" been "invoke[d]" with regard to Abdulmutallab, and in a subsequent statement, Blair said that the FBI interrogated Abdulmutallab and "received important intelligence."

Right-wing media suggest U.S. less safe, distort Blair's testimony

Ace of Spades on Abdulmutallab interrogation: "Exactly how many people are going to have to die to satisfy the moral posturing of this administration and its supporters?" After quoting from a Los Angeles Times report that falsely claimed that during Blair's January 20 testimony before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, he "told senators ... that it was a mistake for authorities to give the accused bomber in the attempted Christmas Day attack on a U.S.-bound airliner a reading of his Miranda right to an attorney," Ace of Spades blogger Drew M. wrote:

The Obama administration to the cheers of their supporters on the left have made it perfectly clear that they view these kinds of attacks as nothing more than another law enforcement issues, you know kind of like a 911 call for some drunken college kids pissing behind a bar...they both get the same rights and protections.

Exactly how many people are going to have to die to satisfy the moral posturing of this administration and its supporters? [1/20/10]

Citing Blair testimony, pundit K.T. McFarland falsely claims Abdulmutallab not interrogated; agrees that it's "just a matter of time" before another attack. Appearing on the January 21 edition of Fox News' Your World with Neil Cavuto, pundit and columnist K.T. McFarland claimed of Blair's testimony:

McFARLAND: I mean, if you listen to what he [Blair] said just prior to that, he and the other three homeland security chiefs -- Janet Napolitano, the head of the counterterrorism unit, the head of the FBI -- they all -- they were all asked point-blank, when that Christmas Day bomber got off that plane, did you know that he was going to be read the right to remain silent and you weren't going to be able to interrogate him? And they all said, "No, that was a Justice Department decision. That wasn't us." Whoa. What's going on here? These people are supposed to protect us, and they have just let that guy get -- not be interrogated. When he got off that plane, Neil, he was babbling like a brook, according to the former attorney general, and you know what happened? He got read Miranda rights, he got lawyered up, and clammed up.

CAVUTO: He clammed up and --

McFARLAND: Clammed up.

CAVUTO: So you think that obviously was a mistake, and you think that if they continue to do that sort of thing, it's just a matter of time.

McFARLAND: Sure. And the other thing that they're doing that's a huge mistake that we've got to change is they're treating everybody the same. Political correctness, we're not profiling anybody. We don't need to racially profile, but we should profile for certain behavioral traits.

NRO's Burck: "[P]ossibility of interrogating Abdulmutallab to learn whether he had information that could help prevent another attack was seen as, at best, a secondary consideration." From a post by Bill Burck on National Review Online's blog The Corner on the topic of Blair's testimony:

The Justice Department, with the White House's explicit or tacit blessing, has won a major turf battle with the intelligence services. The Obama White House is so committed to the law-enforcement approach to combating terrorism -- the very approach that the bipartisan 9/11 Commission said was a major reason the 9/11 plot went undetected until it was too late -- that the possibility of interrogating Abdulmutallab to learn whether he had information that could help prevent another attack was seen as, at best, a secondary consideration and, at worst, wholly irrelevant. [1/20/10]

Weekly Standard falsely claimed "Blair admitted that Abdulmutallab was not interrogated for intelligence purposes." In a blog post, The Weekly Standard's Stephen F. Hayes asserted: "Blair admitted that Abdulmutallab was not interrogated for intelligence purposes because the Obama administration had not considered using the newly-created elite interrogation unit on terrorist in the United States." [1/21/10]

Fox Nation falsely claims Blair said "Undie-bomber should've been interrogated as a terrorist." Linking to a Canadian Press article on Blair's testimony, Fox News' website, the Fox Nation asserted in a headline: "U.S. Intel Chief: Undie-Bomber Should've Been Interrogated as Terrorist." [1/20/10]

NRO's Sales falsely claims Blair said "it was a mistake to read the underwear bomber his Miranda rights." From a blog post on The Corner by former Bush administration homeland security official Nathan Sales:

The Obama administration is taking heat for treating Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab -- the al-Qaeda operative who tried to blow Northwest Flight 253 out of the sky on Christmas day -- like a common criminal. On Tuesday, Republican Scott Brown won Ted Kennedy's old Senate seat partly because his call for Abdulmutallab to be held in military custody resonated with Bay State voters. The next day, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair told Congress it was a mistake to read the underwear bomber his Miranda rights before letting intelligence officials interrogate him about other threats to the homeland. [1/21/10]

Las Vegas Review-Journal falsely claims Blair testified that "the Christmas underwear bomber should have been treated as a terrorist, rather than a criminal defendant." In a January 21 editorial headlined "Over its Head," the Las Vegas Review-Journal claimed:

On Wednesday, Dennis Blair, the nation's director of national intelligence, testified in the Senate that the Christmas underwear bomber should have been treated as a terrorist, rather than a criminal defendant.

Mr. Blair went on to say that he was never consulted as to whether Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian who tried to blow up a home-made bomb as a Northwest Airlines flight descended toward Detroit, should have been questioned by a recently created interrogation unit designed to get information out of terror suspects.

"That unit was created exactly for this purpose," Mr. Blair said. "We did not invoke (it) in this case. We should have."

[...]

So three of the country's top anti-terror officials were left out of the loop on the underwear bomber. Meantime, instead of letting a special interrogation group take a crack at the terror suspect, the administration allows him to lawyer-up while he sits in a Michigan jail cell awaiting a criminal trial.

Mr. Blair's comments should give pause even to Mr. Obama's most passionate defenders because they reveal an administration that increasingly-- and distressingly -- appears over its head on a number of vital fronts.

Group that Blair said should have been invoked is not actually operational

Blair said that he believed High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group (HIG) "should have" been "invoke[d]." From Blair's January 20 Senate testimony (via Nexis) during questioning by Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME):

BLAIR: Senator Collins, I'd been a part of the deliberations which have established this high-value interrogation unit, which we started as part of the executive order as part of the decision to close Guantanamo. That unit was created exactly for this purpose -- to make a decision on whether a certain person who's detained should be treated as a case for federal prosecution or for some of the other means.

We did not invoke the HIG in this case; we should have. Frankly, we were thinking more of overseas people and, duh, you know, we didn't put it then. That's what we will do now, and so we need to make those decisions more carefully. I was not consulted. The decision was made on the scene, seemed logical to the people there, but it should have been taken, using this HIG format, at a higher level.

HIG not operational. As Blair acknowledged in a subsequent statement, the HIG -- a proposed "specialized interrogation group" designed to "bring together the most effective and experienced interrogators and support personnel from across the Intelligence Community, the Department of Defense and law enforcement" to "interrogate the most dangerous terrorists" -- is not "fully operational." Indeed, Newsweek's Michael Isikoff reported: "Abdulmutallab couldn't possibly have been questioned by the HIG because the unit doesn't exist yet. The task force had recommended it be created to handle the questioning of "high value" Qaeda leaders who might be captured overseas -- a criterion that clearly doesn't apply in Abdulmutallab's case. But the proposal is still being reviewed by the National Security Council, and the actual unit has not yet been created." [Newsweek, 1/20/10]

HIG reportedly not designed to have jurisdiction over suspects on U.S. soil. In a November 20, 2009, blog post on Fort Hood shooting suspect Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, The Washington Independent's Spencer Ackerman wrote: "it is unlikely that the HIG would interview Hasan. Dean Boyd, a spokesman for the Justice Department's national security division, clarified that the new group is mandated to operate 'overseas only.' " Similarly, Isikoff wrote: "The task force had recommended it be created to handle the questioning of 'high value' Qaeda leaders who might be captured overseas -- a criterion that clearly doesn't apply in Abdulmutallab's case." Isikoff later added: "[S]ince Abdulmutallab was not a Qaeda leader, and was captured in Detroit, not overseas, the HIG wouldn't apply in any case, said the source, who worked closely on the proposal."

As Blair subsequently indicated, Abdulmutallab was interrogated by the FBI

Blair said testimony "misconstrued," acknowledged that FBI obtained valuable intelligence. Following his Senate testimony, Blair released the following statement: "My remarks today before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs have been misconstrued. The FBI interrogated Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab when they took him into custody. They received important intelligence at that time, drawing on the FBI's expertise in interrogation that will be available in the HIG once it is fully operational."

FBI Director Mueller testified to suspect's interrogation. FBI Director Robert Mueller testified that interrogators interviewed Abdulmutallab "to gain intelligence, intelligence about whether there's another bomb, whether other coconspirators, where'd he get the bomb, all of that information without the benefit of -- or within the Miranda warnings." From Mueller's testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee (via Nexis):

SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD (D-WI): Director Mueller, we've heard criticism this morning for the decision to try Abdulmutallab in federal court. And I'm, of course, a little mystified by this reaction, given the similarity of this case to the attempt by Richard Reid, who was prosecuted in federal court by the prior administration, now serving a life sentence. Some have argued the decision has compromised our ability to obtain useful intelligence.

But as I understand it and as Senator Feinstein touched on, there are quite a few examples of people who have been charged with terrorism-related crimes in federal court and cooperated with the U.S. government. Do you see any reason to treat this case differently from the Richard Reid case? And has it been your experience that alleged terrorists charged with crimes in federal court often cooperate with the government and provide useful intelligence?

MUELLER: Well, in direct answer to the question, we've had a number of cases in which through the process -- the criminal justice process of the United States, individuals have decided to cooperate and provided tremendous intelligence. That is not to say that there may not be other ways of obtaining that intelligence. But, yes, in answer to your question, the criminal justice system has been a -- a fountain of intelligence in the years since September 11th.

[...]

SEN. SHELDON WHITEHOUSE (D-RI): Do you not react differently to cases that have a national security and terrorism overtone than to you regular book of criminal business, in terms of making early decisions as to what type of interrogation is appropriate?

MUELLER: Certainly we do. And that's what the agents did in this particular case. There were no Miranda warnings given. They immediately went in, when they had the opportunity to interview him to determine whether -- to gain intelligence, intelligence about whether there's another bomb, whether other coconspirators, where'd he get the bomb, all of that information without the benefit of -- or within the Miranda warnings.

It had to be done very quickly because of the fact that he had been injured, was in a hospital, and the window of opportunity to do this had to be undertaken very quickly.

But the fact remains, as well, later that evening, he was Mirandized and -- and went into the judicial system. I'm not going to opine one way or the other, because I don't think it's my role to -- to necessarily adopt the policy as to where the person goes. It's to other persons at the Department of Justice and elsewhere.

Blair did not say Abdulmutallab should not have been processed through the civilian criminal justice system

Blair did not say that Abdulmutallab should not have been Mirandized or that he should have been held by the military. At no point in his unclassified testimony did Blair state that Abdulmutallab should not have been read Miranda rights or that he should have been transferred from civilian to military custody. When asked directly by Sen. John McCain if Abdulmutallab should be "tried in civilian court or should it be under military tribunal," Blair stated: "I'm not ready to offer an opinion on that in open session. We can talk about it in closed session, Senator McCain."

Abdulmutallab handling mirrors that of shoe bomber Reid

During Bush administration, shoe bomber Richard Reid handled through civilian justice system. Shoe bomber Richard Reid -- who reportedly claimed he was a member of Al Qaeda -- is serving a life sentence in a Colorado prison for "trying to blow up a trans-Atlantic flight with explosives concealed in his shoes" after being charged in civilian court and pleading guilty." According to news reports, Reid was read his rights and the investigation into Reid's crimes was handled by the FBI and federal prosecutors.

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