Guest Blogger: Message for John Brennan: First Rule of Holes Is … Stop Digging

Marc Thiessen /

Assistant to the President for Counterterrorism John Brennan

In USA Today this morning, Obama’s top counter-terrorism advisor lashes out at those criticizing the administration’s bungling of the Christmas Day bomber interrogation.  Brennan accuses critics of “[p]olitically motivated criticism and unfounded fear-mongering” which he declares “only serve the goals of al-Qaeda.”

My goodness.

Only one problem for Brennan.  The criticism to which he refers is not from Dick Cheney and commentators on the right.  His op-ed was a reply to an editorial from USA Today, published side by side with his own, which is entitled: “Our view on war on terror: National security team fails to inspire confidence. Officials’ handling of Christmas Day attack looks like amateur hour.”

Ouch.

USA Today is not alone in its criticism.  The Washington Post, that right-wing bastion, has also taken the administration to task in the Abdulmutallab case.  After first defending the White House on the Christmas Day interrogation, the Post reversed course once the facts emerged, writing: “We originally supported the administration’s judgment in the Abdulmutallab case, assuming that it had been made after due consideration.  But the decision to try Mr. Abdulmutallab turns out to have resulted not from a deliberative process but as a knee-jerk default to a crime-and-punishment model.”  The Post called the Administration’s handling of Abdulmutallab “myopic, irresponsible and potentially dangerous.”

Ouch again.

Were the Post and USA Today engaged in “fear-mongering” in service to the “goals of al Qaeda”?

The fact is the Obama administration — and Brennan in particular — are on the defensive over the mishandling of Abdulmutallab, and with good reason.  So they are flailing about, lashing out at their detractors and coming up with a series of confused, contradictory, and demonstrably false excuses for their egregious string of errors.

This weekend, for example, Brennan claimed on Meet the Press that he informed key Republican members of Congress that the Christmas bomber was in FBI custody, and said “They knew that ‘in FBI custody’ means that there’s a process then you follow as far as Mirandizing and presenting him in front of a magistrate. None of those individuals raised any concerns with me at that point.”

He forgot to mention that in August 2009 the Obama administration had informed Congress and the press that terrorists questioned by the FBI, as part of its High-Value Interrogation Group, would not automatically be Mirandized.  According to the Washington Post, “Interrogators will not necessarily read detainees their rights before questioning, instead making that decision on a case-by-case basis, officials said.  … ‘It’s not going to, certainly, be automatic in any regard that they are going to be Mirandized,’ one official said, referring to the practice of reading defendants their rights. ‘Nor will it be automatic that they are not Mirandized.’”  Whoops.

This is only the first of many whoppers Brennan has told since the scandal broke.  In his USA Today op-ed, writes: “Would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid was read his Miranda rights five minutes after being taken off a plane he tried to blow up. The same people who criticize the president today were silent back then.”  He fails to mention that Reid was captured just a few weeks after the 9/11 attacks, when they system of military commissions was not yet up and running, and the authority to hold terrorists captured inside the U.S. as enemy combatants had not yet been affirmed.  (And, by the way, since when is “we’re doing the same thing as Bush” the mantra of the Obama administration anyway?  Didn’t Bush leave them a big “mess” on detainees that Obama had to clean up?  Forgive us for being confused)

Then Brennan writes: “There have been three convictions of terrorists in the military tribunal system since 9/11, and hundreds in the criminal justice system — including high-profile terrorists such as Reid and 9/11 plotter Zacarias Moussaoui.”  He fails explain why there have been only three convictions in the military tribunal system.  The military commissions did not begin functioning until 2008 because of all the legal challenges from left-wing lawyers, including Eric Holder’s law firm, Covington & Burling (which, as I point out in Courting Disaster, donated about $1.2 million in free legal services to terrorist at Guantanamo Bay in 2007 alone).  As for the argument that hundreds were convicted in the criminal justice system, it has been decimated by Andy McCarthy over at National Review Online.  Apparently that number includes every junior extremist who got a parking ticket outside a radical mosque.

Brennan claims that reading terrorists Miranda rights was standard FBI policy under Michael Mukasey.  But he neglects to mention that Mukasey forcefully affirmed the President’s wartime authority to detain terrorists captured in the United States — including U.S. citizens — as enemy combatants, both as Attorney General and as a federal judge.

Brennan claims that terrorists like Padilla and al-Marri “did not cooperate when transferred to military custody.”  Release the interrogation reports and prove it.  These are the same people who told us the CIA interrogation program did not work, until the declassified intelligence proved those claims to be completely wrong.

Brennan claims that “Immediately after the failed Christmas Day attack, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was thoroughly interrogated and provided important information.”  If he was so “thoroughly” interrogated during that 50 minutes of questioning, why are we questioning him again today after he broke his five weeks of silence?  Either we got everything we needed (as the Administration conveniently argued when Abdulmutallab was not speaking), or he has more information (as the administration claims now that he is speaking).  Seems that initial interrogation was not so “thorough” after all.

And why on earth are they telling us that he is talking, much less what he is talking about?  By sharing this information with the press, they are also sharing it with al Qaeda.  The surprisingly candid explanation came from White House Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton, who told reporters: “Ideally this information would not necessarily come out … but we made the determination that it was a good idea to make sure that people knew … that our methods here were working.”  In other words, “ideally” we would not share with al Qaeda that Abdulmutallab was talking, but since we are under fire from critics for screwing this up we thought it was a “good idea” to share intelligence with the enemy.

And Brennan accuses his critics of being “politically motivated”?

And it goes on.

The fact is, the bungling of Abdulmutallab’s questioning will one day he taught in interrogation school as a case study in how not to do it.  Telling this high-value terrorist he had the “right to remain silent” — a right he exercised for five weeks — cost us irreplaceable counterterrorism opportunities.  And telling us when he began talking again gave the enemy a heads-up to cover his tracks further.

It is hard not to agree with USA Today’s assessment:  It’s “amateur hour” at the White House.  Unfortunately, that hour comes in a time of war.

Marc Thiessen is a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush and author of the New York Times bestseller Courting Disaster: How the CIA Kept America Safe and How Barack Obama Is Inviting the Next Attack.

The views expressed by guest bloggers on the Foundry do not necessarily reflect the views of the Heritage Foundation.