The president is wrong to scapegoat the intelligence agency for failing to connect the dots on the Christmas bomber. Former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen on why Obama’s early moves tied our hands in the war on terror.
The report released by the White House Thursday into the failure to stop al Qaeda’s attempt to blow up a passenger plane over Detroit found a number of mistakes were made—including the misspelling of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s name and the failure to put him on the no-fly list. But the ultimate failure was much larger. According to the New York Times, “The report concluded that the government’s counterterrorism operations had been caught off guard by the sophistication and strength of a Qaeda cell in Yemen, where officials say the plot against the United States originated.”
President Obama laid blame for this failure on the agency he has put under siege since his second day in office: the CIA. “This was not a failure to collect intelligence,” he declared this week, “it was a failure to integrate and understand the intelligence we had …. That’s not acceptable and I will not tolerate it.” But the President’s chief counterterrorism advisor, John Brennan, told a different story, acknowledging that we did not, in fact, have all the intelligence we needed: “We did have the information throughout the course of the summer and fall about … plans to carry out attacks,” Brennan said. “We had snippets of information …. We may have had a partial name. We might have had an indication of a Nigerian. But there was nothing that brought it all together.”
The question is: why did we have nothing that brought all the “snippets” of information together? Because within 48 hours after taking office, President Obama eliminated the only tool that would allow the intelligence community to do so: the CIA program to interrogate senior terrorist leaders. Thanks to Obama, America no longer have the capability to detain and question the only individuals who know how the information fits together—the terrorists themselves.
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What we don’t know may kill us
The Christmas Day terrorist attempt should make us think twice about how we’re fighting — or not fighting — the war on terror.
By Marc A. Thiessen
The plot to blow up Northwest Airlines flight 253 on Christmas Day was, according to multiple news accounts, organized and launched by al-Qaeda leaders in Yemen. ABC News has reported that the Nigerian man who attempted to blow up a plane over Detroit, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, spent a month at an al-Qaeda compound north of Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, where he completed training alongside a Saudi al-Qaeda bomb-maker.
Little noted is the fact that the second in command of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula — the group that reportedly trained and deployed Abdulmutallab for his mission to attack the American homeland is a released Guantanamo detainee: Said Ali al-Shihri.While al-Shihri’s specific role has not been determined, it is increasingly clear that the terrorist network he helps lead was behind the attempted Detroit attack.
Known to Guantanamo officials as Detainee No. 372, al-Shihri was captured on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in December 2001. He denied being a terrorist and claimed to have traveled to Afghanistan two weeks after the 9/11 attacks to deliver money for the Red Crescent. At Guantanamo, he told officials that he had never even heard of al-Qaeda until he arrived in Guantanamo, and declared that “Usama bin Laden had no business representing Islam.” He promised that if released he would return to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, reunite with his family and work in their used furniture store.
Despite evidence that he had trained in an al-Qaeda camp north of Kabul, he was released in 2007 to a Saudi rehabilitation program. But al-Shihri never became a furniture salesman. Instead, last January, he appeared in a series of jihadist videos identified as al-Qaeda’s second in command on the Arabian Peninsula. The New York Times reported that he is “suspected of involvement in a deadly bombing of the United States Embassy in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa,” in September 2008.
A cautionary tale
The connection between this former Guantanamo detainee and the most recent al-Qaeda plot to attack the homeland is a cautionary tale — one that should give Americans pause about President Obama’s plans to release more detainees and shut down the detention center at Guantanamo. Just days before the attempted attack in Detroit, the Obama administration transferred six more Guantanamo detainees to Yemen. According to the summary of evidence prepared by Guantanamo officials, one of those released, Farouq Ali Ahmed, was a member of al-Qaeda who was “observed carrying an AK-47 and wearing fatigues at UBL’s private airport in Kandahar”and was captured with an organized group of mujahedin fighters after the fall of Tora Bora. Another, Ayman Saeed Abdullah Batarfi, admitted to Guantanamo officials that “he met with Usama Bin Laden on a number of occasions.” Perhaps these men will now lead peaceful lives. Or they might, like al-Shihri, return to jihad. According to the Defense Intelligence Agency, at least 74 terrorists released from Guantanamo are believed to have returned to the fight. Those still at the facility, according to the Brookings Institution, include: 26 members of al-Qaeda’s leadership cadre, 90 lower-level al-Qaeda operatives, eight members of the Taliban leadership, 81 foreign fighters and 11 Taliban fighters and operatives. Releasing such terrorists, or bringing them to America, is dangerous and misguided.
Instead of looking for ways to release these dangerous men, we should be capturing and interrogating more of them for information on planned attacks. But that is something the U.S. no longer does. President Obama has shut down the CIA interrogation program that helped stop a series of planned attacks — and in the year since he took office, not one high-value terrorist has been interrogated by the CIA.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration has escalated the targeted killing of high-value terrorists. There may be times when killing a terrorist leader is the best option (for example, his location might be too remote to reach with anything but an unmanned drone). But President Obama has decided capturing senior terrorist leaders alive and interrogating them — with enhanced techniques if necessary —is not worth the trouble.
Intelligence we’ll never see
The problem with this approach is that dead terrorists cannot tell their plans. According to ABC News, Abdulmutallab has told investigators there are “more just like him in Yemen who would strike soon.” Who are these terrorists? Where have they been deployed? We may not find out until it is too late because we launched a strike intended to kill the al-Qaeda leaders who could give us vital intelligence.
On Christmas Eve, U.S. and Yemeni forces struck a compound where senior al-Qaeda leaders were meeting. Among those believed killed, The Washington Post reported, were “Nasser al-Wuhayshi, al-Qaeda’s regional leader, and his deputy, Said Ali al-Shihri.” A U.S. official told the Post that they were “the two biggest fish in the most violent offshoot of al-Qaeda that exists in the world.” Subsequent reports have indicated al-Wuhayshi might have survived. The fates of the two men remain unclear.
In an earlier time, when we tracked down such big fish, we would take them in alive, hand them over to the CIA and find out their plans to kill Americans. No longer. If we had tried to capture, instead of kill, these two terrorist leaders, they could have told us whether more like Abdulmutallab were on the way. Now, they might have taken these secrets to the grave. And we are left to hope that the passengers on the next flight are as brave as those who subdued Abdulmutallab on Christmas Day.
Marc A. Thiessen’s new book, Courting Disaster: How the CIA Kept America Safe and How Barack Obama Is Inviting the Next Attack, will be published in January by Regnery.