Secular Right | Reality & Reason



Terrorism and opportunism

I recall a time in the not-too-distant past—just over one year ago, say–when being a “war-time president” carried a certain aura of sanctity, lest criticism of the Commander-in-Chief demoralize the troops fighting that “war.”   Times have changed along with the administration.  Such is the way of politics.  But the implication that decisions taken by the Obama administration contributed either to the hatching of the 12/25 plot or to the failure to detect it strikes me as particularly opportunistic.   Any alleged failures in the intelligence community were a long time brewing; the idea that bureaucracies as large and sclerotic as those governing intelligence gathering and analysis suddenly took a new direction after January 2009 is absurd.  Yet here is former Navy Secretary and 9/11 Commission member John Lehman alleging that:

The president [that would be President Obama, BTW, not Bush] has ignored the 9/11 Commission’s report.  This whole idea that we can fix things by jumping higher and faster is ridiculous. The fact is that the system worked just like we said it would work if the president failed to give the Director of National Intelligence the tools he needs: it’s bloated, bureaucratic, layered, and stultified.

The 9/11 Commission report came out in 2004; any failure to “give the Director of National Intelligence the tools he needs” or to fix bureaucratic bloat would have happened on the last watch.  If Lehman was aware of intelligence tools that the DNI needed that Obama was withholding, he should have spoken up before this. 

Bush Attorney General Michael Mukasey rehearses the usual litany of missed clues that allegedly were clear enough to have detected Abdulmutallab’s plot: 

These included Abdulmutallab’s father’s warning to the State Department that his son was being radicalized and had gone to Yemen; the one-way ticket purchased for cash; no luggage; and intercepted communication referring to a plot involving “the Nigerian” in Yemen.

But Mukasey does not explain how Obama’s directives resulted in the “dots” remaining unconnected.  Was there suddenly a command to pay less attention to passengers who pay cash for tickets?  Even if the prevailing assumption is correct that a perfect intelligence system could put together all nascent terror possibilities and plots out of the millions of points of intelligence gathered every day, the reasons why our current intelligence systems do not live up to that ideal accumulated over the last decade and before, in part thanks to pressures from privacy advocates, to which Bush and his predecessors acceded.

Marc Thiessen claims that Obama’s decision to shut down the CIA’s secret interrogation centers would have “caused another attack,” but for the actions of Abdulmutallab’s fellow passengers.  He provides no evidence that we were anywhere close to finding the tracks of the relevant Al Qaeda branch before Obama shut down the program, or that we would have been likely to pick someone up over the last year who would have described or provided leads about the plot.  Thiessen is absolutely correct that human intelligence is vital to making sense of signals intelligence, and that the decision to confine the CIA to Army Field Manual interrogation techniques carries a great risk of missed intelligence.  But it is purely speculative whether that decision had any bearing on the present case.  Surely the build-up of Al Qaeda in Yemen is not just a post-January 2009 phenomenon; officials prior to the current administration apparently missed its significance as well.   (The CIA, of course, has not always enjoyed such conservative confidence regarding its War on Terror credentials.)

The battle over whether Obama uses the phrase “war on terror” enough would strike me as silly, except for one massive consequence of the phrase: the rights accorded an interrogation subject.  After making a few trivial jabs at other post-12/25 phrases that he deems insufficiently bellicose (such as “no smoking gun”), Michael Mukasey rightly points out that actionable intelligence often has a short shelf life, and cannot wait on a plea bargain.  True enough.  Giving Abdulmutallab a lawyer in this case strikes me as reckless.  But in that vein, given the ephemeral nature of much intelligence, one does wonder whether the detainees who have been held for years in Guantanamo really have much more information to offer anymore. 

There are plenty of willing attack dogs currently in government and outside to go after Obama’s policies.  It’s disappointing, in my view, that people of Cheney and Mukasey’s stature have taken on that role as well.  If the parties in power were reversed, the Republicans would probably denounce the strident second-guessing on the part of past administration members.  I would wish that those prior leaders behaved with greater forbearance and respect for the offices that they once occupied, and with recognition that their current occupants are most likely operating in good faith.   The ex-administration attack dogs would undoubtedly respond that the fate of the nation depends on their speaking out candidly and without restraint against Obama’s alleged mistakes.  But then at the very least they should get their facts straight, such as regarding whether the previous administration spoke out immediately about failed terror attempts.   If this is really a fight for our civilization, as conservatives argue, one could hope that we might behave in a more respectful, principled manner, rather than seizing political advantage wherever we can find it.


  • John · January 11, 2010 at 7:13 pm

    I agree that Obama was not personally responsible for the Christmas attack. However, I’m glad that think people like Cheney are going after him. It is clear that fighting terrorism is not even remotely a priority for Obama. He sees terrorists as no different from ordinary criminals, despite the fact that terrorism not only has the potential to kill more people, but also is done for specific long term gains. By closing down Guantanamo and trying terrorists as ordinary criminals, he is allowing terrorists to go free and showing weakness before the world. Cheney chastised Obama for not using the word “war” precisely because his refusal showed that he was not serious about terrorism. (Soon after, Obama did admit that we were at war, showing that Cheney has more alpha-male gravitas than Obama’s whole administration put together.)

    Obama wasn’t at fault for this attack, but he might be responsible for the next one.

  • y81 · January 11, 2010 at 7:28 pm

    Yeah, it’s terrible those headlines on the New York dailies: “Obama Knew.” O, wait, never mind.

    I’ll rephrase: it’s terrible the way the sun rises every darn morning in the east, water is always wet, and people, especially members of the opposite party, keep blaming the president when things go wrong. Our nation can’t take another 200 years of this behavior.

  • Jeeves · January 12, 2010 at 7:04 am

    Normally a fan, Heather, I find your apologetics for the Obama administration rather pathetic. As Obama said (inconsequentially) “the buck stops here.” So what the Bush administration did then (or says now) is irrelevant. Looking back over your shoulder at the Bushies is an Obama habit your ought to avoid.

    What does the fact (?) that no intel is being acquired from the current residents of Gitmo have to do with anything? We only detain this scum so long as they are a potential source of intelligence? The recidivism rate would argue otherwise.

    As John says, the way the Panty Bomber was handled is a direct reflection of the Obama/Holder mindset–plus Muslim outreach and every other misguided and Utopian (nuclear disarmament, anyone?) Obama foreign policy “initiative.” Lapses in our dot-connecting may go back to Bush, but if Obama is repudiating his predecessor’s efforts (while adopting many of them) then he’s in charge. Strike one whistled over the plate at Ft. Hood.

  • Don Kenner · January 12, 2010 at 7:06 am

    Despite Obama’s failings (which are numerous and jaw-dropping in their incompetence) I think Ms. McDonald is on target here. As with all our current woes — economic decline, Islam, government-creep — there is a marked reluctance by conservatives to admit that the soup was going rancid well before the current chef showed up.

  • A-Bax · January 12, 2010 at 8:10 am

    I’m usually a big fan of Heather’s, but I’ve got to part ways with her here. As Krauthammer said:

    I think if you look back over the last two weeks, what is so surprising and so unsettling is not the individual lapses, the missed information here and there. I think it’s the demeanor and the language of the president, a sense people have that he’s disconnected.

    He doesn’t either want to or [is able to] grasp the nature or depth of the threat. The way he waits three days after the attack to say anything … casually dressed, looking like he resents being taken off the golf course.

    He speaks about [the incident] as if he’s giving a police report, speaks about the incident involving a suspect, an alleged attack, he speaks of him as an isolated extremist. …
    And it took him the fifth attempt in the remarks he made yesterday to actually use the term, “we are at war” and to make it sound as if he believes it. …

    The Bush administration allowed the attack of Richard Reid, which we were lucky it didn’t actually succeed. It can happen to any administration, a lapse here and there. But a disconnected and detached and affectless president is rather disturbing, and that’s why I think that the reaction is extremely unsettled.

    That Obama is trying KSM in civilian court tells you all you need to know about the how seriously the current administration takes the jihadist threat (read: not at all). Add in the overall response to the undy-bomber, and public understandably gets into recrimination mode.

  • Art · January 12, 2010 at 9:07 am

    Was there suddenly a command to pay less attention to passengers who pay cash for tickets?

    It appears that in the case of this particular “cash traveler” the answer would be, yes. Not about the flight he tried to bring down, but about the potential threat to future flights:

    The chance to secure crucial information about al-Qaeda operations in Yemen was lost because the Obama administration decided to charge and prosecute Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab as an ordinary criminal, critics say. He is said to have reduced his co-operation with FBI interrogators on the advice of his government-appointed defence counsel.

    The potential significance became chillingly clear this weekend when it was reported that shortly after his detention, he boasted that 20 more young Muslim men were being prepared for similar murderous missions in the Yemen.

    He was singing like a canary, then we charged him in civilian proceedings, he got a lawyer and shut up,” Slade Gorton, a member of the 9/11 Commission that investigated the Sept 2001 terror attacks on the US, told The Sunday Telegraph.

    “I find it incomprehensible that this administration is treating terrorism as a law enforcement issue. The president has finally said that we are at war with al-Qaeda. Well, if this is a war, then Abdulmutallab should be treated as a combatant not a criminal.”

    UK Telegraph

    I’m thinking that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney would have encouraged him to keep talking.

  • Mike H · January 12, 2010 at 9:23 am

    I don’t think Obama himself is directly responsible for the Detroit attack or the Fort Hood shooting for that matter but the White House response to both those attacks and their behavior with regards to Gitmo, KSM etc. illustrates their rather confused, tepid attitude towards the confrontation with Islamic terror. It reminds me very much of the 1970s liberal approach towards the Cold War which aside from a few anti-communist holdovers of the Scoop Jackson school was also notable for its inability to understand the essential wrongness of communism and the brutal nature of the Soviets and their satellites. Back then questions like “We support the Shah of Iran, how can we claim to be any better than the Soviets?” “We did My Lai, how can we criticize the Cuban regime?” moved liberals, today we hear that if we slap a few terrorists around we are no better than them and other self-flagellating defeatist stuff.

    Bush no doubt has been responsible for some tremendous mishaps in the entire affair. Setting up DHS and the constant attempts to downplay and/or ignore the religious nature of the threat were probably the biggest ones and doubtlessly they led to some of the current issues. But Obama has in no way attempted to correct those issues and in my opinion he and his appointees are almost guaranteed to make matters worse (and have already on a few fronts) . After all, both bloated, incompetent bureaucracy and crippling political correctness are phenomena which Republicans often may find hard to shake off but Democrats actively endorse and embrace. The GOP may have to live with these tendencies in the federal bureaucracy when in power, Democrats revel in them and reinforce them.

  • Mithra Yrley · January 12, 2010 at 5:18 pm

    Heather is spot on: Obama has handled everything as well as can be expected. We should support the man regardless of results, because frankly you just cannot expect that much from him. If you expect little, you have little reason to be disappointed.

  • Ethan · January 12, 2010 at 9:57 pm

    The real topic of this site seems to be “those things that act as barriers to identifying with conventional American conservatism”–whether it’s atheism, or low levels of partisan feeling, or being English.

    Maybe it should be Ill-at-ease-on-the Right.

    But don’t stop posting! I’m really just hoping I’ll see more posts of the ambivalent-conservative sort if the idea’s more clearly enunciated.

  • Sully · January 12, 2010 at 10:51 pm

    The man said he could make the seas recede. Given that, holding him accountable for not having the intelligence bureaucracies up to snuff in a year seems reasonable.



Theme Design by