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Published: Tuesday, 1/26/2010

Brown victory has a silver lining for Obama Administration

THERE is a silver lining for Democrats in the Brown cloud that has descended upon them. It's distracted attention from testimony that the intelligence failures with regard to the Christmas bomber were more appalling than we'd been told.

Last Wednesday, as panicked Democrats wondered what Scott Brown's stunning win in the Massachusetts U.S. Senate race portends for them, four senior intelligence officials testified before the Senate Homeland Security Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee about the interrogation, such as it was, of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian who allegedly tried to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight with a bomb built into his underwear.

The officials were Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Director of National Intelligence Adm. Dennis Blair; Michael Leiter, chairman of the National Counterterrorism Center, and FBI Director Robert Mueller.

At the Homeland Security Committee hearing, they said they weren't consulted before the decision was made to treat Mr. Abdulmutallab as a criminal defendant. That decision was made by a senior official at the Justice Department whom the Obama Administration is unwilling to identify. Shortly after assuming office, President Obama stripped the responsibility for interrogating terrorists from the CIA and gave it to a new group, the High Value Detainee Interrogation Group, which would report directly to the director of national intelligence.

Mr. Abdulmutallab should have been questioned by agents from what's known as the HIG, Admiral Blair said at the hearing:

"The unit was created exactly for this purpose. To make a decision on whether a certain person who was 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."

One reason the HIG wasn't called in, Admiral Blair told Sen. Susan Collins (R., Maine), was that "frankly, we were thinking more [of using HIG for] overseas people" than for terrorists captured in the United States.

Admiral Blair also said he'd been pressured to reduce the number of names on the "no-fly list."

Newsweek reports that the director of national intelligence was ordered to "amend" his testimony by furious administration officials. "One senior official described the comments by Blair … as misinformed on multiple levels and all the more damaging because they immediately fueled Republican criticism that the administration mishandled the Christmas Day incident," Newsweek noted.

Admiral Blair issued a statement saying his testimony had been "misconstrued"; that the HIG didn't interrogate Mr. Abdulmutallab because the unit isn't "fully operational."

It's difficult to say which is more disconcerting: That it hadn't occurred to senior intelligence officials that a terrorist might be captured within the United States, or that nearly a year into Mr. Obama's presidency, he hadn't set up a means to interrogate captured terrorists to replace the one he dismantled.

In any event, until his lawyer arrived, Mr. Abdulmutallab was questioned by FBI agents who viewed this as a criminal case. They were not familiar with information about the suspect's link to terrorists that had been gathered by the counterterrorism center.

At the Judiciary Committee hearing, Mr. Mueller acknowledged that Mr. Abdulmutallab clammed up as soon as he was told he had a right to remain silent. But the FBI director defended the decision to treat him as a criminal defendant and to make that decision without consulting senior officials.

In response to sharp questions from Sen. Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.), Mr. Mueller said the decision to treat Mr. Abdulmutallab as a criminal was made "on the fly" by the agents on the scene. He indicated that they'd received no guidance from higher authority on how to deal with such situations.

Eric Fehrnstrom, an adviser to Scott Brown, said his victory was fueled more by Mr. Brown's opposition to treating terrorists as criminal defendants than by his opposition to Obamacare.

Panicked Democrats who are urging the President to "pivot" on health care should urge him to "pivot" on terrorism as well. Pressing Obamacare can only hurt the political prospects of Democrats. Continued laxity on terror could get a lot of Americans killed.

Unfortunately, the administration's harsh response to Admiral Blair's honesty indicates the President is more concerned with covering his own posterior than in protecting ours.

Jack Kelly is a columnist for The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Contact him at: jkelly@ post-gazette.com



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