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.