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Intel Chief Presents Obama With Another Headache

Dennis-blair-480x361.jpg
Dennis-blair-480x361.jpg

Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair (James Berglie/ZUMA Press)

If President Obama didn’t have enough headaches after the loss of the Democrats’ filibuster-proof Senate majority on Tuesday night, another one emerged for him at a Senate hearing on Wednesday morning: Dennis Blair, the director of national intelligence.

During the first in a battery of congressional hearings about the failed bombing of Northwest Airlines flight 253, Blair, the nation’s top intelligence official, declined to endorse the Obama administration’s decision to try would-be bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in federal civilian court — a decision that Republicans and conservatives have subjected to weeks of criticism. Asked by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) whether Abdulmutallab should be tried by a civilian court or a military commission, Blair replied, “I’m not ready to offer an opinion on that in open session.”

[Security1] Blair told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that the administration should have used its newly created interrogation team, known as the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Unit or HIG, to extract information from Abdulmutallab. Republican lawmakers have suggested, without offering any specific evidence, that the U.S. lost access to valuable information from the al-Qaeda-tied Abdulmutallab after Mirandizing him and ultimately indicting him. Law-enforcement officials and Obama appointees, for their part, insist, also without offering specific evidence, that hours of FBI interrogations of Abdulmutallab yielded valuable intelligence.

“We did not invoke the HIG,” Blair said. “In this instance, we should have.” The HIG — which reports to the FBI and the National Security Council, not the director of national intelligence — has been previously described by knowledgeable administration officials as a tool for use almost exclusively in the interrogation of foreign-held detainees. Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) quickly pounced on Blair’s statement, calling it a “guarantee” from the administration to opt out of the civilian criminal justice system in future cases of foreign citizens apprehended on U.S. soil in connection to terrorism, as many Republicans desire.

A senior administration official, speaking on background, contradicted Blair, saying the HIG is not yet operational — and, in any case, is supposed to be used for terrorism suspects detained overseas. “This is very basic, very clear,” the official said, expressing surprise that Blair would say the HIG should have been involved.

Blair — who is expected to appear before a classified hearing Thursday morning in the Senate intelligence committee — suggested that Abdulmutallab’s Christmas-time apprehension after Flight 253 landed in Detroit was more ad hoc and chaotic than the Obama administration has portrayed. Joined by Janet Napolitano, the secretary of Homeland Security and Michael Leiter, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Blair said he was not consulted on the decision to charge Abdulmutallab. In a separate, simultaneous hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee, FBI Director Robert Mueller said he was also out of the loop. Shortly after the incident, Napolitano famously said “the system worked” after Abdulmutallab was subdued on Flight 253.

“We need to make those decisions more carefully,” Blair said about not using the HIG for Abdulmutallab and the decision to charge him in federal court. “It was made on the scene.” Asked later to clarify who was responsible for deciding to Mirandize the would-be bomber, Blair replied, “The FBI agent in charge on the scene.” Mueller stated at his own hearing that “the decision to arrest [Abdulmutallab] and put him in criminal courts” was made by FBI “agents on the ground.” Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) expressed surprise that the decision to prosecute Abdulmutallab did not come from a more senior official.

Spokespeople for the Justice Department and the White House declined to comment on Blair’s remarks to the Senate panel, referring questions back to Blair’s office. But hours after the hearing concluded, Blair issued a statement conceding that the HIG would not have been a viable interrogation option in this case.

“My remarks today before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs have been misconstrued,” Blair said in the statement. “The FBI interrogated Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab when they took him into custody. They received important intelligence at that time, drawing on the FBI’s expertise in interrogation that will be available in the HIG once it is fully operational.”

Blair, a retired four-star admiral and former commander of U.S. military forces in the Pacific, has had a rocky tenure as director of national intelligence since Obama appointed him to the post last January. Last year, he tussled with the CIA director, Leon Panetta — technically Blair’s subordinate — over control of the CIA’s top intelligence officers in foreign stations. Blair lost that dispute, which had to be mediated by the White House. At Wednesday’s hearing, Blair occasionally appeared lost, misunderstanding senators’ questions and saying he wished intelligence officials leaking to the press would “shut the hell up.”

But Blair did not give cover to another line of attack from Republican senators: that Abdulmutallab should be tortured. Ensign asked Blair why it made sense to restrict interrogations of terrorism suspects to the techniques listed in the mostly-Geneva-Conventions-compliant Army Field Manual on Interrogations, as Obama insisted in one of the first executive orders of his presidency. Blair strongly strongly defended the decision. “We looked at that quite carefully,” Blair said. “We do not know if the same information obtained through extra-judicial measures [could not] have been obtained without them.”

Some civil libertarians were concerned by the hearing’s occasional tendency to relitigate the principles of trying terrorism detainees in civilian courts and treating them humanely. “The senators’ claim that the government had the right to seize [Abdulmutallab] and turn him over to the military for secret imprisonment and harsh interrogation is the same radical and discredited claim that President Bush made about his authority to seize anyone, including citizens, found in the U.S. and hold them without charge,” said Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies. “The government went down that path, it flouted the rule of law and eventually had to be fixed by bringing criminal prosecutions.”

Additionally, some counterterrorism officials and outside experts have pushed back recently against the GOP talking point that Mirandization inhibits interrogation. According to a paper released Wednesday by the Center for American Progress’s Ken Gude, a detainee’s access to legal counsel is also not an obstacle to intelligence collection. “Terrorist suspects have given what U.S. officials call ‘an intelligence goldmine’ after meeting with attorneys,” Gude writes.

In the Senate Judiciary Committee, FBI Director Mueller backed up that proposition. “We’ve had a number of cases in which through the process — the criminal justice process of the United States — individuals have decided to cooperate and provided tremendous intelligence,” Mueller said. “That is not to say that there may not be other ways of obtaining that intelligence. But, yes, in answer to your question, the criminal justice system has been a — a fount of intelligence in the years since September 11th.”

Update: This piece has been edited for clarity.

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