A Senate Intelligence Committee staffer says that in recent updates to the committee, and in briefing individual Senators, national security and national intelligence officials have indicated that they have gained "no actionable intelligence" from interviews with the so-called "Christmas Day" or "underwear bomber," Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. This, after White House officials had told reporters that Abdulmutallab was cooperating with law enforcement and national intelligence officials, and that the information was helpful.
"The information they may have drawn out of him after his family arrived was probably more than a month old and there just wasn't very much of it to begin with," says the Senate staffer in relaying what his bosses were being told. "The Obama Administration has indicated that information they pulled from him on the night of the arrest may have been more helpful, but that intelligence was largely focused on his activities leading up to the attempted bombing."
The Senate updates late in the week came after the White House held a briefing for reporters about the Abdulmutallab case early last week, making public the fact that the Department of Justice has allowed some of the man's family into the country to encourage him to cooperate with federal law enforcement officials. Such a media briefing involving what the Department of Justice had indicated was an "ongoing national security matter" was considered unprecedented for an ongoing terrorism case.
The White House claimed the briefing was to "contextualize" the testimony and comments made earlier in the day before the Senate committee by Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair, CIA Director Leon Panetta and FBI Director Robert Mueller. But after those comments were made public, the FBI requested that the White House not hold the briefing.
That press briefing was held anyway because it was intended, according one White House official, to quell the continued criticism of the Obama Administration's handling of the Abdulmutallab case: the fact that the President chose not to speak about the attempted terrorist attack until more than 48 hours had passed, that senior Administration officials chose to essentially treat Abdulmutallab as a U.S. citizen and to provide him with Miranda rights, and to treat the case as a standard federal criminal case in Michigan.
"It's one thing for someone to go out and say that we're getting intelligence from someone like Sheik Mohammed," says a former Federal Bureau of Investigation official. "It's another to have what amounts to a propaganda event because you're getting tired of being criticized in the media and you want the media to give inaccurate information to the American public."
Adding to the confusions, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder had announced that it was his decision alone to go the criminal justice route with Abdulmutallab, rather than the national security route. "No one here believes that," says a Department of Justice attorney in the Criminal Division. "We all know Eric is falling on his sword for the guys up the street at the White House. Something this big doesn't take place without input and final sign off from the Executive Office of the President."
In a New Yorker interview, Holder continued to give the Obama Administration cover, saying, "What we did is totally consistent with what has happened in every similar case" since 9/11. "There's a desire to ignore the facts to try to score political points. It's a little shocking." But current and former Department of Justice and National Security Agency officials dispute that claim, pointing out that over the past nine years, a vast majority of those cases involved either joint sting operations or arrests prior to any attempted acts of terrorism, and that in the case of foreign nationals on U.S. soil, different strategies were used to elicit intelligence.
"It's one thing when you nab a U.S. citizen attempting to buy or sell Stinger missiles with the intent of committing a terrorist act. Or arresting a student from Dubai here on a visa who has been gathering intelligence for al Qaeda for a possible terrorist act," says a former Department of Justice official. "It's another when you have a guy who actually tried to blow up a plane, and had recent interaction with an increasingly influential wing of a terrorist network we're trying to understand."
On Sunday, the White House continued its attempts to downplay the solidifying impression that the President and his national security team are soft on terrorism. White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan said on Meet the Press that he had briefed four Republican congressional leaders on the bombing attempt, had informed them that Abdulmutallab was cooperating with the FBI, and that they were aware of the legal strategy the Administration would undertake moving forward.
"Our understanding was that it was a two-minute phone call," says a House Republican staffer with ties to the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. "And to claim that call might have revealed a strategy moving forward would not be accurate by any stretch. When have these people proven they have a strategy about anything other than playing politics with everything they touch?"
The American Spectator is calling on President Obama to try Mr. Abdulmutallab under a military tribunal. Sign the Petition.
Republican National Committee and state Republican Party leaders were buzzing about a pamphlet being handed out during the party's Hawaiian winter meeting written by House Republican Policy Committee Chairman Rep. Thaddeus McCotter.
Entitled, "We the People: Wide Awake for Our Newest Birth of Freedom," the pamphlet lays out a conservative philosophical roadmap for the 2010 election cycle.
"We got briefed on this program the party and the House and Senate Republicans are doing to come up with another Contract for America, with all the focus groups and polling and such," says a state party representative from South Carolina. "Why waste all that money when you've got a something that maybe is a bit too wordy, but pretty much lays it out the way conservatives and Republicans think on the issues? I liked it, and the state party is going to use it."
The policy committee posted the pamphlet on its website sometime before Christmas, and neither the committee nor McCotter have been promoting it.