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Crotch Bombers, Obama, Blair, Brown, and War

What did Obama mean when he finally declared that we are "at war"?

by
Dan Miller

Bio

January 29, 2010 - 12:00 am

On January 7, President Obama finally gave us the “surprising” and indeed “shocking” details of the Christmas Day attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab — the now infamous underpants bomber — to destroy an airliner and kill all aboard plus an unknown number of others on the ground.

Things have not stood still since President Obama’s speech on January 7. Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair is reported to have said on January 20:

The Christmas Day airline bombing suspect should have been treated as a terror suspect when the plane landed. That would have meant questioning him initially by special interrogators rather than standard law enforcement officers.

Also:

He was not consulted on whether Abdulmutallab should be questioned by the recently created High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group, or HIG.

“That unit was created exactly for this purpose,” Blair said. “We did not invoke the HIG in this case. We should have.”

Under questioning by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, Blair and Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano said they were not consulted before the decision was made to not use the high-value detainee interrogation group. Also, Michael Leiter, chief of the National Counter Terrorism Center, said he was not consulted. “That is very troubling,” Collins said.

Blair’s testimony infuriated the Obama administration:

One senior official described the comments by Blair … as misinformed on multiple levels and all the more damaging because they immediately fueled Republican criticism that the administration mishandled the Christmas Day incident in its treatment of the accused al-Qaeda operative as a criminal suspect rather than an enemy combatant.

“People are annoyed, angry, and frustrated about this,” said the senior official, who asked not to be identified, speaking about Blair’s testimony. The official added that the White House has ordered Blair to “correct” his remarks. “He’s taking a mulligan on this,” the official said.

Shortly thereafter, Blair’s office issued a clarification noting that his words had been misconstrued. The infuriated folks at the White House did not seem to think they had been misconstrued — they read them much the same as I did.

From January 26:

The leaders of a commission that investigated failures related to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks … said U.S. intelligence agencies should have been consulted before … Abdulmutallab was granted constitutional protections under U.S. law, known as Miranda rights, and initially stopped talking to investigators.

Even the Washington Post has changed its view and now argues that the underpants bomber should not have been treated as a criminal suspect.

The use of high-value interrogation techniques seems, on its face, to be inconsistent with a subsequent civilian criminal trial, as Mr. Blair seemed to understand. Why didn’t President Obama mention these things, and why is he so infuriated that Mr. Blair did?

Scott Brown’s successful campaign to “steal” the late Senator Kennedy’s seat focused to some extent on the silliness of trying terrorists in civilian courts in the United States. Scott Johnson writes at Powerline:

Scott Brown reiterated one of the winning themes of his campaign in a memorable fashion: “And let me say this, with respect to those who wish to harm us, I believe that our Constitution and laws exist to protect this nation — they do not grant rights and privileges to enemies in wartime. In dealing with terrorists, our tax dollars should pay for weapons to stop them, not lawyers to defend them.”

The national security policy of the Obama administration in its treatment of enemy combatants as American citizens is indefensible. The case of Umar Abdulmutallab is a powerful example. The Obama administration has in fact put forth no principled defense of its endowment of enemy combatants such as Abdulmutallab with the rights of American citizens. The irrationality of the Obama administration on this point is obvious and devastating.

Blair’s “misconstrued” statement, followed by the hissy fit, suggests that Brown’s remarks struck home. This seems to be another reason why his victory “shocked and arguably humiliated the White House.”

Although perhaps “shocking,” most of the details of the Christmas Day event as declaimed by President Obama on January 7 are not at all surprising. President Obama and his colleagues may have been surprised, but they should not have been, at least not to the point of neglecting to consult with Blair and others on what to do with Abdulmutallab or where to do it. Probably the only truly “surprising” thing in his entire performance was President Obama’s belated observation:

[We face a challenge] protecting our country against a foe that is bent on our destruction. And while passions and politics can often obscure the hard work before us, let’s be clear about what this moment demands: We are at war. We are at war against al-Qaeda, a far-reaching network of violence and hatred that attacked us on 9/11, that killed nearly 3,000 innocent people, and that is plotting to strike us again. And we will do whatever it takes to defeat them. (emphasis added)

Clarity is not only good but unusual. It is also good that President Obama did not refer to the Christmas Day unpleasantness as an alleged and isolated criminal attempt to cause a man-made disaster, and that he pledged to do “whatever it takes.” It seems possible that the lessons left unlearned following the Fort Hood incident more than two months ago may now have been learned, albeit tardily.

But what did President Obama actually mean on January 7? As observed at Powerline: “The prospect of losing a reelection race concentrates the mind wonderfully.”

Well yes, but the loss of Massachusetts came too late to concentrate President Obama’s mind before his January 7 address.

What did “at war” mean on January 7 and how does the United States conduct a war with al-Qaeda terrorists bent upon causing death and destruction in the United States? “War” is a strange word; once upon a time, it had an understandable meaning. We were at war with Germany and Japan following the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, for example. Later, we got into wars with poverty, AIDS, hunger, obesity, acne, and a bunch of other quite different enemies. Those wars seem not to have been won, use of the word “war” in those contexts had little meaning, and even some Code Pink members probably supported some of those heroic efforts.

Nevertheless, the words must have had some meaning in the present al-Qaeda context.

Being “at war” with al-Qaeda evidently did not mean that we are at war with Islam; that would be politically incorrect beyond belief, and it would indeed be both shocking and surprising if that was what President Obama meant. He has substantial roots in Islam, for which he apparently has high regard. Islam, as we have been told repeatedly and have even memorized, is the religion of peace and enlightenment — there are only a few “isolated” Islamic extremists, and since they are not peaceful they are not really and truly Islamic. We are at war only with card-carrying members of al-Qaeda.

It seemed from President Obama’s January 7 address that being at war with al-Qaeda did not mean that, should we happen to capture one, we would treat him with disrespect or otherwise be unpleasant. That’s the job of the Transportation Safety Administration, and they don’t seem to understand there’s a war on (they just do it routinely). In dealing with al-Qaeda terrorists, we are said to be bound not only by the United States Constitution and statutes but apparently by international law as well, so any extra protections afforded by the latter will also be provided.

The sense I got from President Obama’s January 7 address — unlike the sense I got from Mr. Blair’s “misconstrued” January 20 testimony — was that we must continue to demonstrate to the world, much of it populated by Islamists, that we are fair and transparent. Hence, after the appropriate Miranda warning and provision of counsel (if accepted), it appeared that we would confine the criminal suspect in a reasonably pleasant place to await a speedy trial, provide more physical comforts than he is likely to be accustomed to, cater to his religious sensibilities, and provide food and other amenities consistent with those sensibilities.

We would not “torture” a criminal suspect to get information useful in preventing jihadist attacks, nor jump to hasty conclusions — as President Obama warned us not to do in addressing Major Hasan’s escapade at Fort Hood. We would not punish the victim of our society’s wicked ways inappropriately. Indeed, Abdulmutallab would be deemed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt at a full trial, preferably in a civilian criminal proceeding in the United States, at which he would enjoy bountiful rights — none of which are enjoyed under sharia law or off-with-his-head justice.

We did the same in the case of Zacharias Moussaoui, and will do so with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Mr. Abdulmutallab, whose escapade on Christmas Day caused President Obama finally to proclaim that we are “at war.” As was the case in the recent trial of Blackwater guards, any “fruit” of the poison tree of a coerced statement will be scornfully rejected.

What else did the presidential proclamation that we are “at war” mean and what can it reasonably be expected to accomplish?

Mr. Abdulmutallab had his first day in court on the same day as President Obama’s address, and a plea of not guilty was entered for him.

President Barack Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, has said Abdulmutallab would be offered a plea deal in exchange for valuable information about his contacts in Yemen and elsewhere.

A perceptive analysis of the loss of critical intelligence which probably resulted from the decision to proceed in a civilian criminal court is presented here. If the underwear bomber is a confirmed jihadist, anxious to immolate himself, or at least to roast his genitals, for the cause, the chances that he will provide any useful information in exchange for a reduced sentence are slim at best. His principal attorney, Miriam Siefer, will doubtless do the best she can for him since that is her job. She seems to be very good at it.

Nevertheless, the eyewitness testimony and physical evidence seem, at the moment, to be overwhelming; in flawed Western eyes, bargaining (gently) in a civilian criminal proceeding for potentially high-value information in exchange for a light sentence would be the right thing to do. That may be difficult, not the least because Mr. Abdulmutallab may be uncooperative and prefer to turn the legal proceeding into a prolonged farce, as did Zacarias Moussaoui.

The January 7 presidential proclamation that we are at war must have meant something more, and maybe it did. It was praised highly — rather more highly than the White House praised Mr. Blair’s January 20 testimony. National Security Adviser James Jones stated complacently:

We know what happened, we know what didn’t happen, and we know how to fix it. That should be an encouraging aspect. We don’t have to reinvent anything to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

However, President Obama told us, clearly and decisively, that lots will have to be done. He has initiated the following reforms:

First, he ordered the intelligence community to assign responsibility to individuals to pursue leads on specific high-priority threats. Previously, specific low and high priority threats must have been assigned indiscriminately to amorphous groups. That will be fixed.

Second, intelligence reports will be distributed more widely and quickly.

That’s nice, even though it’s also a bit of a no-brainer.

Third, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair will overhaul existing intelligence analytical efforts.

If that’s the case, nap times and coffee breaks in the intelligence community may have to be shortened, something far worse than the winter retreat from North Korea over snowy mountains during the police action there in 1950, which wasn’t even a real “war.” Fortunately, Mr. Blair seems to have done some pondering since January 7, as reflected in his January 20 testimony noted above. Unfortunately, he may have to continue his pondering as a private citizen.

Fourth, the government will strengthen the criteria used to add people to no-fly lists.

Elderly Methodist bishops and tea party activists, watch out. At least with TSA nominee Erroll Southers no longer in the picture, there will be less pressure than had been anticipated to unionize the TSA.

However, this was also reported:

Obama didn’t tell intelligence officials to change what they’re doing. Instead, he told them to just do it better, and faster. He left it to them to figure out how.

While Obama promised improved security, his solutions were laced with bureaucratic reshuffling.

But … but that’s what bureaucrats do; now they must do it better and faster, but they better know their place and not stray from the path of administrative righteousness.

Still, added together, this must all amount to a clearly stated and decisive effort actually to win the war, expeditiously and cleverly, because President Obama told us so. Unlike the stupid and ineffective doings of the Bush administration, and the stupid and misinformed comments of Mr. Blair, it is the smartest and most effective way to proceed. Even though there seems to be nothing in the works to reverse the substantial damage done to the intelligence community during President Obama’s nearly one year in office.

Man-caused disasters have finally got President Obama’s attention and so has his director of national intelligence; both are very bad. So, apparently, have complaints about holding terrorist trials in New York got his attention. It’s the “not in my backyard” syndrome, but has nothing to do with whether terrorists should be tried in civilian courts.

Since we are now at war, we can all look forward to a prompt declaration of victory, no matter what or how loudly Allah may squawk. Then our government will be able to get on with the important business of the nation, despite the lessons of the January 19 Massachusetts election. It is still very important that what’s left of the economy be destroyed and that health care and card check legislation be enacted. We must no longer be distracted even briefly by annoying difficulties, all of which are President Obama’s unfortunate inheritance from former President Bush. Onward and upward forever!

Dan Miller graduated from Yale University in 1963 and from the University of Virginia School of Law in 1966. He retired from the practice of law in Washington, D.C., in 1996 and has lived in a rural area in Panama since 2002.
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