Facts Get In The Way Of Conservatives’ Abdulmuttalab Scare Story

Our guest blogger is Ken Gude, Associate Director of the International Rights and Responsibility Program at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

The revelation that Umar Farouq Abdulmutallab, the failed Christmas Day underwear bomber, has been cooperating with authorities and providing valuable information “for days” demonstrates how irresponsible and ill-informed many conservatives have been in attacking President Obama’s handling of the incident. Using the tough and proven criminal system is producing results, while the Bush administration experiment with these conservatives’ preferred alternative -– the incommunicado detention of Jose Padilla — failed utterly to deliver reliable intelligence.

Conservatives have attacked the decision to charge Abdulmutallab in federal criminal court and give him access to an attorney. Critics like Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-MI) and Rudy Giuliani went on the attack from the get go, but they were recently joined by former NSA and CIA Director Michael Hayden and Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME).

Gen. Hayden took to the pages of the Washington Post on January 31 to claim “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.” Sen. Collins delivered the Republican weekly address the day before and castigated “the irresponsible, indeed dangerous, decision on Abdulmutallab’s interrogation.”

It’s terrible when the facts get in the way of a good story.

As we now know, far from being wrong, irresponsible, or dangerous, the path the Obama administration chose for the interrogation of Abdulmutallab is directly responsible for him cooperating with intelligence officials and giving up fresh and actionable intelligence. Abdulmutallab’s family worked with U.S. government officials to encourage him to cooperate, and so, according to them, “because they had complete trust in the US system of justice and believed that Umar Farouq would be treated fairly and appropriately.”

The intelligence gained from Abdulmutallab has been shared widely throughout the intelligence community — and has already produced results. On January 21, Malaysian counterterrorism authorities arrested 10 suspected terrorists tied to Abdulmutallab. The suspected cell was made up of mostly non-Malaysians including two Nigerians who were thought to be part of an international terrorist network.

So by the time Collins and Hayden attacked the Obama administration’s handling of Abdulmutallab’s interrogation it had already produced not just cooperation, but actionable intelligence that allowed an allied government to break up a suspected terrorist cell.

But that’s not all that’s wrong with their argument.

Their recommended alternative to criminal prosecution is to hold Abdulmutallab in military custody without access to a lawyer or any other outside contact. Putting aside for a moment the questionable legality of such incommunicado detention, the first of only two times it was used — the Bush administration’s detention of Jose Padilla — seven months transpired and Padilla was still not cooperating with his interrogators.

We know this because then Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency Admiral Lowell Jacoby said so in a sworn affidavit in the Bush administration’s unsuccessful attempt to have Judge (later Attorney General) Michael Mukasey reverse his ruling requiring Padilla be able to meet with his attorney.

Seven months after his transfer to military custody, Jacoby told Mukasey that “Padilla might delay providing information until he believes that his judicial avenues of relief have been exhausted… Any such delay in Padilla’s case risks that plans for future attacks will go undetected… and whatever information Padilla may eventually provide may be outdated and more difficult to corroborate.”

Jacoby warned that, in this approach to interrogation, “There are numerous examples of situations where interrogators have been unable to obtain valuable intelligence from a subject until months — or even years, after the interrogation process began.”

The Obama administration’s approach to handling Abdulmutallab has produced significant, actionable, and reliable intelligence information in days or weeks. The approach favored by Hayden and Collins might not even work after months or years. Tell me again who is being dangerous and irresponsible?