We got it wrong in Detroit on Christmas Day. We allowed an enemy combatant the protections of our Constitution before we had adequately interrogated him. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is not “an isolated extremist.” He is the tip of the spear of a complex al-Qaeda plot to kill Americans in our homeland.
In the 50 minutes the FBI had to question him, agents reportedly got actionable intelligence. Good. But were there any experts on al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in the room (other than Abdulmutallab)? Was there anyone intimately familiar with any National Security Agency raw traffic to, from or about the captured terrorist? Did they have a list or photos of suspected recruits?
When questioning its detainees, the CIA routinely turns the information provided over to its experts for verification and recommendations for follow-up. The responses of these experts — “Press him more on this, he knows the details” or “First time we’ve heard that” — helps set up more detailed questioning.
None of that happened in Detroit. In fact, we ensured that it wouldn’t. After the first session, the FBI Mirandized Abdulmutallab and — to preserve a potential prosecution — sent in a “clean team” of agents who could have no knowledge of what Abdulmutallab had provided before he was given his constitutional warnings. As has been widely reported, Abdulmutallab then exercised his right to remain silent.
And why did we get it wrong?
Because our government thinks that al-Qaeda are criminals along the lines of street gangs or the Mafia. They are not.
They are loosely connected Muslim fanatics that actually think that Allah commands them to kill unbelievers. They believe this with the same certainty that Keith Olbermann has that Bill O’Reilly is the devil. Maybe even stronger than that.
They do not consider death or imprisonment a deterrence, it is the will of Allah and not punishment.
This sets us up for a tiger ride. Do we continue to handle them with legalistic kid gloves and learn to live with the attacks? If so, they will certainly try to make them more and more horrible. Or do we squeeze them and hunt them, which will lead to them attempting more and more horrible attacks. But succeeding less.
It’s a war. And wars are nasty things that result in the death and maiming of thousands of innocent (or not so innocent) people. But not fighting a war results in the death and maiming of thousands of innocent (or not so innocent) people you know. It’s a Tiger tail situation. Do we hang on and hope we aren’t eaten, or do we let go and hope we can kill the tiger before it eats us?