Special Report

Mirandized Security Risks

Gregory Craig resigned for all the wrong reasons. President Obama should instead ask Janet Napolitano, John Brennan, Eric Holder, and Dennis Blair to resign.

By 2.3.10

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Remember Greg Craig?

Before his recently announced return to the private sector, Craig was White House counsel in the Obama administration, and also the President's designated point-man on smoothing the way for fulfilling an ill-conceived presidential campaign promise: the closure of the terrorist detention facility at Guantanamo Bay by January 2010. It is widely acknowledged that the "resignation" Craig tendered in November of last year was the result of his failure to manage the difficult politics involved in shutting Gitmo down.

There were numerous indications along the way that Craig had fundamentally misread Congress and the American people on this issue. We were recently reminded of just how bad the miscalculation was: reports indicate that the administration will likely be backing down from the idea of putting 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed -- currently held in Gitmo -- on trial in New York City, because it rightfully believes Congress will not hand over the funds for such a misguided, politically suicidal endeavor.

But when it comes to Craig's removal, one thing is more telling than Congress's repudiation of his overtures. Craig was shown the door because of his failure to sell a bad policy that, were it to be realized, would jeopardize our national security and make us less safe.

Compare that outcome with the Obama national security team's handling of Omar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian al Qaeda operative who attempted to blow up a plane over Detroit on Christmas Day. From the moment Abdulmutallab got on the plane to the moment he was Mirandized and allowed to lawyer up like a common criminal, key individuals with principal responsibility for preventing these incidents -- Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano; Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism John Brennan; Attorney General Eric Holder; and Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair -- proceeded to mishandle the attempted bombing and its aftermath in trainwreck fashion:

Napolitano: Shortly after a few brave passengers thwarted Abdulmuttalab's underwear detonation, Secretary Napolitano proclaimed on CNN: "..the system worked. Everybody played an important role here. The passengers and crew of the flight took appropriate action." This prompted widespread ridicule and bipartisan calls for her resignation. She subsequently backtracked, stating that the system clearly had not worked, and that her comments to the contrary were taken out of context.

Given that Napolitano began her tenure by replacing the word "terrorism" with the decidedly sterile phrase "man-caused disasters" in the DHS lexicon, and then proceeded to issue a report indicating that soldiers returning from service in Iraq or Afghanistan were a security threat, it is perhaps not surprising that, consistent with her inverted view of the threat landscape, this near-catastrophe was seen as a demonstration of success.

Brennan: Mr. Brennan initially suggested there was "no smoking gun" to indicate that Abdulmutallab intended to board a plane and blow it up. Brennan's own report was released days later, indicating:

The information available to the CT community over the last several months -- which included pieces of information about Mr. Abdulmutallab, information about [al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] and its plans, and information about an individual now believed to be Mr. Abdulmutallab and his association with AQAP in its attack planning -- was obtained by several agencies. Though all of that information was available to all-source analysts at the CIA and the [National Counterterrorism Center] prior to the attempted attack, the dots were never connected, and as a result, the problem appears to be more about a component failure to "connect the dots," rather than a lack of information sharing.

But is it not precisely the job of the counterterrorism and intelligence community to connect such dots? As homeland security expert James Carafano of the Heritage Foundation aptly put it prior to the report's release: 

There is almost never a smoking gun. There was no smoking gun in 26 of the 28 terrorist attacks foiled by the US since 9/11 (Abdulmutallab and Richard Reid were stopped by dumb luck). We built the post-9/11 security system because we never expect to have a smoking gun, because we expect the administration to connect-the-dots.

Holder: The first FBI agents on the scene interrogated Abdulmutallab for about fifty minutes before the Holder Justice Department intervened from Washington and instructed a team of new agents to read Abdulmutallab his Miranda rights, after which he promptly stopped talking and did not start again for several weeks. As Thomas Joscelyn points out in the Weekly Standard, Abdulmutallab potentially knows a great deal about al Qaeda operations overseas and here in the United States, including those involving American recruits -- he could have disclosed valuable intelligence on this much sooner had he not been Mirandized. Ironically, while this administration insists on, in the words of Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, never letting a serious crisis go to waste, the Attorney General proceeded to waste this serious crisis in less than an hour.

What precipitated the switch? Because the Justice Department is being run by an Attorney General who insists on using our criminal justice system to handle terrorists, interrogations must now stand up to more stringent, defendant-oriented rules of evidence to obtain a conviction. The result: the same ideology that had driven Holder to try the 9/11 perpetrators in Lower Manhattan made it harder to gather timely, accurate intelligence and possibly stop future attacks.

Blair: Dennis Blair is the Director of National Intelligence. According to the DNI website: "the Office of the DNI's goal is to effectively integrate foreign, military and domestic intelligence in defense of the homeland and of United States interests abroad. "

Given that integration is in the job description, it is more than a bit alarming that Blair, when testifying before the Senate on the Detroit flight incident, indicated that the so-called High Value Detainee Interrogation Group (HIG), rather than the FBI, should have taken custody of Abdulmutallab. As Blair put it:

[The HIG] was created for exactly 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.

Why is this alarming? Because not only is the HIG, as Blair himself later clarified, not yet operational, but it had not been operational since President Obama mandated its creation in August of 2009 -- information that one would hope the Director of National Intelligence can keep straight in assessing what went wrong. 

So…Craig is out because he could not spin a bad policy; Napolitano, Brennan, Holder and Blair stay put even though they have demonstrated an inability to fulfill the most basic component of their job descriptions: protecting us. Put another way, the ability to sell a policy that threatens our national security is of greater value to this White House than the ability to actually prevent terrorists from getting on our planes and to extract intelligence from those we manage to catch. Fail to do the former, pack your bags. Fail to do the latter, stick around and chalk the whole thing up to "systemic failure" in which everyone is responsible, and therefore no one is responsible.

The Christmas Day bomber incident underscores that after a full year in office, the time has come for President Obama to fundamentally reorient his outlook on national security, to value performance over spin and appoint others who do the same. National security needs to be entrusted to individuals who understand that we are at war -- that the terror-prevention system is not working if the passengers have to stop the bomber themselves; that bureaucratic inertia and ineffective communication between intelligence agencies are unacceptable vulnerabilities; that allowing a terrorist operative the right to remain silent as if he was caught robbing a convenient store will cut off the flow of critical intelligence; that those in charge of coordinating intelligence operations across the federal government must understand fully which assets are available for leveraging.

In the days following 25 December 2009, President Obama himself announced "we are at war with al Qaeda." If he truly believes that, then for the sake of national security he needs to exercise the authority, as presidents before him have done after their first year in office, to remove for the right reasons those serving under him who cannot do their jobs -- in this case Napolitano, Brennan, Holder, Blair, and those on their staffs directly responsible for the errors made in this instance. Stop prioritizing spin over security.

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About the Author

Ben Lerner is Vice President for Government Relations at the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C.