Desperate to deny the Obama administration any credit for the news that the failed Christmas bomber, Umar Farouq Abdulmuttalab, has been cooperating with investigators and providing intelligence, former Bush administration speechwriter and leading pro-torture advocate Marc Thiessen exclaims “That anyone can consider five weeks of utter silence from this high-value terrorist as a success is stunning.”
Abudulmutallab was supposed to be vaporized along with Northwest Flight 253. The moment al-Qaida learned that he had survived and was in U.S. government custody, they began taking countermeasures to cover his tracks.
Every hour, every day, every week that went by gave them precious time to close bank accounts, e-mail addresses, phone numbers he knew about, and shut down training camps, safe houses, and other intelligence leads he could have given us. Terrorists he knew about have been put into hiding, and other leads that were hot in the days immediately following his capture have since gone cold. The intelligence he possessed was perishable. Each moment that passed that he was not speaking meant lost counterterrorism opportunities.
For contrast, Thiessen offers up what he believes is the appropriate way to get intelligence from detainees, the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah:
Before enhanced interrogations, Abu Zubaydah provided what he thought was nominal information; after enhanced interrogations, Zubaydah “increased production” and provided intelligence that led to the capture of Ramzi bin al-Shibh just as he was completing plans for the attack on Heathrow airport. In each of these cases, high value detainees were holding back vital intelligence until they underwent enhanced interrogations—after which they stopped resisting and told us what they knew.
That’s not entirely true. The CIA report (pdf) on detainee reporting that Thiessen relies on (and includes in the Appendix of his book, Courting Disaster) states on page 9: “We assess that each detainee very likely has information that he will not reveal,” even after the application of “enhanced” techniques that Thiessen favors. And, as Marcy Wheeler has documented, there exists no hard evidence that any intelligence gleaned from Zubaydah — through any methods — actually stopped imminent terrorist attacks.
But more significantly, what Thiessen leaves out of his article is that Abu Zubaydah — whose interrogation, remember, Thiessen claims as a triumph of intelligence-gathering — spent several weeks in the hospital before being interrogated. Abdulmuttalab, in contrast, was initially questioned by authorities before receiving medical care.
Thiessen didn’t leave it out of his book, though. On page 82 of Courting Disaster, he writes “When taken into custody, Zubaydah was in intense pain from life-threatening injuries he suffered during his capture.”
The CIA flew in a specialist from Johns Hopkins University who saved Zubaydah’s life. The agency then put off questioning for several weeks while he recovered.
So, understand: Every hour, every day, every week that went by gave Al Qaeda precious time to close bank accounts, e-mail addresses, phone numbers Zubaydah knew about, and shut down training camps, safe houses, and other intelligence leads Zubaydah could have given us. Terrorists he knew about have been put into hiding, and other leads that were hot in the days immediately following his capture have since gone cold. The intelligence he possessed was perishable. Yet Thiessen hails Zubaydah’s eventual interrogation as an intelligence bonanza, a textbook example of how to do it right.
Abdulmuttalab, on the other hand? Lost counterterrorism opportunity.
Marc Thiessen responds:
Here’s the big difference between these two cases that seems to elude the folks in the Wonk Room.
Abu Zubaydah’s interrogation was delayed in order to save his life. He would have died had the CIA not put off his interrogation and flown in a medical specialist from Johns Hopkins to treat his life-threatening injuries. You can’t get any intelligence from a dead terrorist.
Abdulmutallab’s life was not in danger. His interrogation was delayed because the Obama administration told him he had the right to remain silent.
One interrogation was delayed to save the terrorist’s life. The other was delayed because the Holder Justice Department, without even consulting the intelligence community, decided to read him his Miranda rights. Big difference.
Thiessen’s even got the basic facts of the Abdulmutallab case wrong. Abdulmutallab’s interrogation wasn’t “delayed because the Obama administration told him he had the right to remain silent.” FBI Director Robert Mueller testified Tuesday that “FBI agents questioned Abdulmutallab until he entered surgery, and that the suspect was not advised of his Miranda right to remain silent until after he emerged from surgery. A federal law enforcement official, requesting anonymity to discuss an ongoing case, said the suspect made clear upon emerging from surgery he was going to stop talking and then was given his Miranda warning.”
But the reasons that the two interrogations were delayed are, of course, irrelevant to the point, which is that both were delayed, and that Thiessen treats those delays differently based on which administration he’s defending and attacking, and that his own presentation of the Zubaydah case refutes his claim that Abdulmuttalab represents a “lost counterterrorism opportunity.”
As Ken Gude wrote yesterday, “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.”