Commentary Magazine


Topic: Counterterrorism adviser

A Dose of Reality

As he so often does, Sen. Joe Lieberman introduces a dose of reality into the national-security debate: the START treaty isn’t going to be ratified in its current form:

“I don’t believe that there will be 67 votes to ratify the START treaty unless the administration does two things,” Lieberman said on “Fox News Sunday.” “First, commit to modernize our nuclear stockpile so as we have less nuclear weapons we know they’re capable, if, God forbid, we need them; and secondly, to make absolutely clear that some of the statements by Russian President Medvedev at the signing in Prague that seem to suggest that if we continue to build the ballistic missile defense in Europe that they may pull out of this treaty — they’re just unacceptable to us. “We need that defense to protect our allies and ourselves from Iran,” Lieberman said.

The problem, of course, is that Medvedev has support for his statements in the text of the treaty. What Lieberman requires — a repudiation of linkage — would require amending the just-signed treaty. Once again one is left to ponder the Obami’s “strategy” — if there is one. Did they imagine no one would notice the linkage to missile defense? Did they think that in an election year they’d get this ratified — or that with reduced Democratic numbers in the Senate it would get through next year? Perhaps all Obama wanted was a signing ceremony, something to justify his “reset” policy and his previous betrayal of Eastern European allies. It is hard to imagine that the Russians will be pleased and our relationship enhanced once we break the news to them that their shiny new treaty is dead on arrival.

Lieberman also blasted the administration for its Orwellian language in addressing the threat of Islamic fundamentalism:

Sen. Joe Lieberman slammed the Obama administration Sunday for stripping terms like “Islamic extremism” from a key national security document, calling the move dishonest, wrong-headed and disrespectful to the majority of Muslims who are not terrorists.

The Connecticut independent revealed that he wrote a letter Friday to top counterterrorism adviser John Brennan urging the administration to “identify accurately the ideological source” of the threat against the United States. He wrote that failing to identify “violent Islamist extremism” as the enemy is “offensive.”

The letter was written following reports that the administration was removing religious references from the U.S. National Security Strategy — the document that had described the “ideological conflict” of the early 21st century as “the struggle against militant Islamic radicalism.”

Lieberman told “Fox News Sunday” this isn’t the first time the Obama administration has tried to tiptoe around referring to Islam in its security documents and that it’s time to “blow the whistle” on the trend.

“This is not honest and, frankly, I think it’s hurtful in our relations with the Muslim world,” Lieberman said. “We’re not in a war against Islam. It’s a group of Islamist extremists who have taken the Muslim religion and made it into a political ideology, and I think if we’re not clear about that, we disrespect the overwhelming majority of Muslims who are not extremists.”

This is the Obama national security approach: paper agreements which can’t be ratified and an enemy that can’t be named. Meanwhile the mullahs proceed to build their nuclear weapons.

As he so often does, Sen. Joe Lieberman introduces a dose of reality into the national-security debate: the START treaty isn’t going to be ratified in its current form:

“I don’t believe that there will be 67 votes to ratify the START treaty unless the administration does two things,” Lieberman said on “Fox News Sunday.” “First, commit to modernize our nuclear stockpile so as we have less nuclear weapons we know they’re capable, if, God forbid, we need them; and secondly, to make absolutely clear that some of the statements by Russian President Medvedev at the signing in Prague that seem to suggest that if we continue to build the ballistic missile defense in Europe that they may pull out of this treaty — they’re just unacceptable to us. “We need that defense to protect our allies and ourselves from Iran,” Lieberman said.

The problem, of course, is that Medvedev has support for his statements in the text of the treaty. What Lieberman requires — a repudiation of linkage — would require amending the just-signed treaty. Once again one is left to ponder the Obami’s “strategy” — if there is one. Did they imagine no one would notice the linkage to missile defense? Did they think that in an election year they’d get this ratified — or that with reduced Democratic numbers in the Senate it would get through next year? Perhaps all Obama wanted was a signing ceremony, something to justify his “reset” policy and his previous betrayal of Eastern European allies. It is hard to imagine that the Russians will be pleased and our relationship enhanced once we break the news to them that their shiny new treaty is dead on arrival.

Lieberman also blasted the administration for its Orwellian language in addressing the threat of Islamic fundamentalism:

Sen. Joe Lieberman slammed the Obama administration Sunday for stripping terms like “Islamic extremism” from a key national security document, calling the move dishonest, wrong-headed and disrespectful to the majority of Muslims who are not terrorists.

The Connecticut independent revealed that he wrote a letter Friday to top counterterrorism adviser John Brennan urging the administration to “identify accurately the ideological source” of the threat against the United States. He wrote that failing to identify “violent Islamist extremism” as the enemy is “offensive.”

The letter was written following reports that the administration was removing religious references from the U.S. National Security Strategy — the document that had described the “ideological conflict” of the early 21st century as “the struggle against militant Islamic radicalism.”

Lieberman told “Fox News Sunday” this isn’t the first time the Obama administration has tried to tiptoe around referring to Islam in its security documents and that it’s time to “blow the whistle” on the trend.

“This is not honest and, frankly, I think it’s hurtful in our relations with the Muslim world,” Lieberman said. “We’re not in a war against Islam. It’s a group of Islamist extremists who have taken the Muslim religion and made it into a political ideology, and I think if we’re not clear about that, we disrespect the overwhelming majority of Muslims who are not extremists.”

This is the Obama national security approach: paper agreements which can’t be ratified and an enemy that can’t be named. Meanwhile the mullahs proceed to build their nuclear weapons.

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Does Anyone in the Administration Get It?

Bill Burck and Dana Perino have become invaluable analysts in deconstructing the Obama spin. (Let’s be frank here, “lies” is more accurate with regard to much of what has come out of the White House these days.) They spot John Brennan saying foolish things again:

After his disastrous television appearances, Brennan was relegated this weekend to giving a speech at the Islamic Center at New York University. Even there, however, he again said something profoundly misguided. Discussing the rate of recidivism of detainees released from Guantanamo, which some have put as high as 20 percent, Brennan said: “People sometimes use that figure, 20 percent, [and] say, ‘Oh my goodness, one out of five detainees returned to some type of extremist activity.’ You know, the American penal system, the recidivism rate is up to something about 50 percent or so, as far as return to crime. Twenty percent isn’t that bad.”

We’re not making this quote up. The president’s top counterterrorism adviser actually said that a 20 percent terrorist recidivism rate was good enough for government work. About 800 people have been detained at Guantanamo and about 600 have been released or turned over to the custody of other governments. Twenty percent means Brennan thinks it’s not a bad day’s work if 120 or so returned to terrorism. If that’s his definition of success, we would hate to see what failure looks like. Sen. Lindsey Graham, for one, doesn’t care to know and has joined in calls for Brennan’s resignation. Senator Graham’s views matter to the White House because he’s their best hope for a bipartisan solution to Guantanamo.

This is, as Burck and Perino point out, the criminal-justice model run wild. Generally, planes don’t get blown from the sky or buildings leveled when a common criminal is released unwisely. Not so with terrorists. And not a great argument to make to those Americans killed on the battlefield by a former Guantanamo detainee.

There is much speculation about “sides” in the Obama administration. Burck and Perino spot the Emanuel/Jones team vs. the Holder/Brennan team. Neither seems like a winning combination, I know. But the premise may not be valid. We, of course, have only one president, and he has been squarely on the side of the criminal-justice model and on the not-Bush anti-terrorism approach. The latter was his ticket into the White House, and the frequency with which he recites the “lost our way” mantra in reference to interrogation and detention policies suggests that he means it.

So the question, I think, is not which team should we root for (I, for one, would be pleased to see the entire quartet depart and would not want to bank on the wisdom of James Jones on anything other than the best D.C. biking trails), but whether the president has woken up to the realities of fighting Islamic fascists. I think the first indication that he has changed his thinking will be when he starts using the phrase “Islamic fundamentalists” or “Islamic jihadists.” No, I don’t think it will be anytime soon.

Bill Burck and Dana Perino have become invaluable analysts in deconstructing the Obama spin. (Let’s be frank here, “lies” is more accurate with regard to much of what has come out of the White House these days.) They spot John Brennan saying foolish things again:

After his disastrous television appearances, Brennan was relegated this weekend to giving a speech at the Islamic Center at New York University. Even there, however, he again said something profoundly misguided. Discussing the rate of recidivism of detainees released from Guantanamo, which some have put as high as 20 percent, Brennan said: “People sometimes use that figure, 20 percent, [and] say, ‘Oh my goodness, one out of five detainees returned to some type of extremist activity.’ You know, the American penal system, the recidivism rate is up to something about 50 percent or so, as far as return to crime. Twenty percent isn’t that bad.”

We’re not making this quote up. The president’s top counterterrorism adviser actually said that a 20 percent terrorist recidivism rate was good enough for government work. About 800 people have been detained at Guantanamo and about 600 have been released or turned over to the custody of other governments. Twenty percent means Brennan thinks it’s not a bad day’s work if 120 or so returned to terrorism. If that’s his definition of success, we would hate to see what failure looks like. Sen. Lindsey Graham, for one, doesn’t care to know and has joined in calls for Brennan’s resignation. Senator Graham’s views matter to the White House because he’s their best hope for a bipartisan solution to Guantanamo.

This is, as Burck and Perino point out, the criminal-justice model run wild. Generally, planes don’t get blown from the sky or buildings leveled when a common criminal is released unwisely. Not so with terrorists. And not a great argument to make to those Americans killed on the battlefield by a former Guantanamo detainee.

There is much speculation about “sides” in the Obama administration. Burck and Perino spot the Emanuel/Jones team vs. the Holder/Brennan team. Neither seems like a winning combination, I know. But the premise may not be valid. We, of course, have only one president, and he has been squarely on the side of the criminal-justice model and on the not-Bush anti-terrorism approach. The latter was his ticket into the White House, and the frequency with which he recites the “lost our way” mantra in reference to interrogation and detention policies suggests that he means it.

So the question, I think, is not which team should we root for (I, for one, would be pleased to see the entire quartet depart and would not want to bank on the wisdom of James Jones on anything other than the best D.C. biking trails), but whether the president has woken up to the realities of fighting Islamic fascists. I think the first indication that he has changed his thinking will be when he starts using the phrase “Islamic fundamentalists” or “Islamic jihadists.” No, I don’t think it will be anytime soon.

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Undoing the Damage — We Hope

As Stephen Hayes details, the Christmas Day bomber is now talking and the Obami have changed their tune. For days and weeks we heard from Obama’s flacks and from leaks in mainstream news outlets that in Abdulmutallab’s 50-minute interview, FBI agents got out all that we needed. And then we were told that he stopped talking even before the Miranda warnings were given. The spin-athon was on to convince us that ”nothing was lost” by allowing him to lawyer up and sit mutely for five weeks. Now he’s talking and we are hearing that intelligence officials are (finally) extracting valuable data. Well, the information we are eliciting might have been even more valuable five weeks ago. Hayes sums up the Keystone Kops display that we have witnessed:

Four top U.S. counterterrorism officials — including Mueller, Blair, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, and Director of the National Counterterrorism Center Michael Leiter — were not consulted about whether to handle Abdulmutallab as an enemy combatant or a criminal. Leiter went on vacation the day after the attack.  John Brennan, the top White House counterterrorism adviser, told him he could go. Three days after the attack, despite copious evidence that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was involved, President Obama declared the attempted bombing the work of “an isolated extremist.” Janet Napolitano, Secretary of Homeland Security, said that she was surprised by AQAP’s “determination” to attack the U.S. homeland and shocked to learn that they would send an individual, not a group, to carry out the deed. DNI Blair told Congress that an elite interrogation team should have questioned Abdulmutallab — only to amend his remarks hours later to acknowledge that the new unit does not exist.

The Obama team is straining to maintain credibility, to convince the public that their criminal-justice model really does make sense, and to assure us that they have not blundered by throwing overboard Bush-era anti-terrorism policies. But let’s get real here: the problem, as well as the spin, started when Abdulmutallab, with no input from intelligence officials, was treated like a common criminal and then clammed up. The last five weeks have been spent by the Obami trying to undue that damage. Let’s hope nothing was lost in the interim. Let’s hope the leads we get (if we get any) have not gone cold. And let’s hope we didn’t give Abdulmutallab a “deal” in order to get him to resume talking.

As Stephen Hayes details, the Christmas Day bomber is now talking and the Obami have changed their tune. For days and weeks we heard from Obama’s flacks and from leaks in mainstream news outlets that in Abdulmutallab’s 50-minute interview, FBI agents got out all that we needed. And then we were told that he stopped talking even before the Miranda warnings were given. The spin-athon was on to convince us that ”nothing was lost” by allowing him to lawyer up and sit mutely for five weeks. Now he’s talking and we are hearing that intelligence officials are (finally) extracting valuable data. Well, the information we are eliciting might have been even more valuable five weeks ago. Hayes sums up the Keystone Kops display that we have witnessed:

Four top U.S. counterterrorism officials — including Mueller, Blair, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, and Director of the National Counterterrorism Center Michael Leiter — were not consulted about whether to handle Abdulmutallab as an enemy combatant or a criminal. Leiter went on vacation the day after the attack.  John Brennan, the top White House counterterrorism adviser, told him he could go. Three days after the attack, despite copious evidence that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was involved, President Obama declared the attempted bombing the work of “an isolated extremist.” Janet Napolitano, Secretary of Homeland Security, said that she was surprised by AQAP’s “determination” to attack the U.S. homeland and shocked to learn that they would send an individual, not a group, to carry out the deed. DNI Blair told Congress that an elite interrogation team should have questioned Abdulmutallab — only to amend his remarks hours later to acknowledge that the new unit does not exist.

The Obama team is straining to maintain credibility, to convince the public that their criminal-justice model really does make sense, and to assure us that they have not blundered by throwing overboard Bush-era anti-terrorism policies. But let’s get real here: the problem, as well as the spin, started when Abdulmutallab, with no input from intelligence officials, was treated like a common criminal and then clammed up. The last five weeks have been spent by the Obami trying to undue that damage. Let’s hope nothing was lost in the interim. Let’s hope the leads we get (if we get any) have not gone cold. And let’s hope we didn’t give Abdulmutallab a “deal” in order to get him to resume talking.

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It’s Not Too Late to Fix a Grievous Error

Sens. Joe Lieberman and Susan Collins have written a letter today to Attorney General Eric Holder and counterterrorism adviser John Brennan urging them to designate Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Christmas Day bomber, as an “unprivileged enemy belligerent” so he can be “questioned and charged accordingly.” The senators note that Obama himself has declared that “we are at war with al-Qaeda.” However, Abdulmutallab was read his Miranda rights and, as others have reported, provided only 50 minutes of conversation to FBI agents who lacked the needed detail to elicit all the helpful material he might possess. The senators note that last week, Dennis Blair and other officials conceded in congressional testimony that the Justice Department “did not consult with leadership in the intelligence community and the Department of Defense for their input on whether or not to treat Abdulmutallab as a criminal and read him his Miranda rights.” Senators also learned that the “High Value Detainee Interrogation Group, which the Department of Justice announced last August — more than four months ago — is not yet operational.”

The senators conclude that the president’s repeated admonitions that we are at war do not appear to “be reflected in the actions of some in the Executive branch.” But they note that the president can “reverse this error” and transfer the Christmas Day bomber to the Department of Defense.

This is a superb suggestion, which many conservative commentators have urged. There really isn’t reason not to do so — unless of course the criminalization of our national intelligence system and the self-imposed limits on our anti-terrorism efforts are in keeping with what the president wants. In that case, the actions of the executive branch have been in tune with Obama’s wishes, and we are all in a great deal of trouble. Let’s hope not.

Sens. Joe Lieberman and Susan Collins have written a letter today to Attorney General Eric Holder and counterterrorism adviser John Brennan urging them to designate Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Christmas Day bomber, as an “unprivileged enemy belligerent” so he can be “questioned and charged accordingly.” The senators note that Obama himself has declared that “we are at war with al-Qaeda.” However, Abdulmutallab was read his Miranda rights and, as others have reported, provided only 50 minutes of conversation to FBI agents who lacked the needed detail to elicit all the helpful material he might possess. The senators note that last week, Dennis Blair and other officials conceded in congressional testimony that the Justice Department “did not consult with leadership in the intelligence community and the Department of Defense for their input on whether or not to treat Abdulmutallab as a criminal and read him his Miranda rights.” Senators also learned that the “High Value Detainee Interrogation Group, which the Department of Justice announced last August — more than four months ago — is not yet operational.”

The senators conclude that the president’s repeated admonitions that we are at war do not appear to “be reflected in the actions of some in the Executive branch.” But they note that the president can “reverse this error” and transfer the Christmas Day bomber to the Department of Defense.

This is a superb suggestion, which many conservative commentators have urged. There really isn’t reason not to do so — unless of course the criminalization of our national intelligence system and the self-imposed limits on our anti-terrorism efforts are in keeping with what the president wants. In that case, the actions of the executive branch have been in tune with Obama’s wishes, and we are all in a great deal of trouble. Let’s hope not.

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Sunday Spin on Christmas Day Bombing

Flipping from channel to channel or perusing the transcripts of the Sunday talk shows, it was hard not to cringe. Counterterrorism adviser John Brennan was everywhere. “We get it right most of the time…. We were alert all along… There wasn’t any smoking gun, just lots of clues we missed…. Yemen is really dangerous but we can’t say we’ll stop sending Guantanamo detainees there…. And Dick Cheney is very wrong…. The performance was defensive and otherworldly, alternately. One is tempted to say that, like Janet Napolitano, Brennan is not up to the job. That may well be the case, particularly as we learn about his own role in the missed clues. But we should be clear: this was all vetted in advance. This is the approved Obami version. These lines are the official talking points. So we come back to the fundamental question: why are they so bad at this? One longs for some candor and for some greater sense of urgency, the urgency that comes from realizing that we haven’t been on top of things and that we better get our act together — quickly.

The spin-meisters’ assurances stand in stark contrast to the bits and pieces of information slowly trickling out. We are learning from news accounts, in particular this eye-popping one, that the incompetence was rather breathtaking. A sample:

Collectively, the U.S. government had its head in the sand. The FBI had no representative at the meeting at the U.S. Embassy in Abuja, in the center of the country, the FBI maintains an attache only in Lagos, on the southern coast. The CIA did not tell the FBI about Abdulmutallab. Under the so-called Visa Viper program, the State Department received the report about the meeting with Abdulmutallab’s father, but it did not revoke the son’s visa. Rather, it made a note to closely scrutinize any future application to renew the visa. Likewise, the NCTC determined that there was no “reasonable suspicion” to conclude that Abdulmutallab was a terrorist, so he wasn’t put on the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center watch list of some 400,000 names, or counted as one of 13,000 people who require extra screening before getting on a plane, or one of 4,000 names who are on the “no fly” list banned from getting on a plane at all. . .

The NCTC was set up to make sure that the various American agencies and intelligence services better shared information in the wake of 9/11, which might have been averted if the CIA and FBI had been in better communication about the al-Qaeda hijackers entering the country. But for reasons still not adequately explained, no one seems to have noticed other red flags in the intelligence system. The intelligence community had already picked up the intercepts indicating that al-Qaeda was planning to use a Nigerian for an attack on America. Other intercepts suggested a terror attack out of Yemen at Christmas, though officials believed the likely target would be somewhere in the Middle East, not in the United States. Finally, there were the intercepts between Abdulmutallab and the phone (and possibly a computer) used by al-Awlaki, the Yemen-based cleric. Such contact would seem to cry out for attention although an intelligence official said the intercepts did not indicate Abdulmutallab’s full name.

And so it goes. But from watching Brennan, one senses that the Obami are banking on the public not fully grasping this. One has the nagging feeling that they are hoping to get by on flimflam and recycled talking points. The dutiful spokespeople — Napolitano and now Brennan — are striving to keep their own jobs and to hold back the torrent of outrage that they fear will sweep them from office. So they are not informing or reassuring us. They are practicing damage control — limit the facts, label the facts, attack the critics, and minimize the enormity of the screw up.

How this incident is being handled suggests that some real Congressional oversight might be needed, or better yet, an independent commission. (Perhaps the 9/11 commission can be brought back since they’ve already figured out what to look for and what bureaucratic bumbling looks like.) At the very least, one wishes that the malefactors who are at least partially responsible would step aside and let those less invested in spinning the story explain what went wrong.

Flipping from channel to channel or perusing the transcripts of the Sunday talk shows, it was hard not to cringe. Counterterrorism adviser John Brennan was everywhere. “We get it right most of the time…. We were alert all along… There wasn’t any smoking gun, just lots of clues we missed…. Yemen is really dangerous but we can’t say we’ll stop sending Guantanamo detainees there…. And Dick Cheney is very wrong…. The performance was defensive and otherworldly, alternately. One is tempted to say that, like Janet Napolitano, Brennan is not up to the job. That may well be the case, particularly as we learn about his own role in the missed clues. But we should be clear: this was all vetted in advance. This is the approved Obami version. These lines are the official talking points. So we come back to the fundamental question: why are they so bad at this? One longs for some candor and for some greater sense of urgency, the urgency that comes from realizing that we haven’t been on top of things and that we better get our act together — quickly.

The spin-meisters’ assurances stand in stark contrast to the bits and pieces of information slowly trickling out. We are learning from news accounts, in particular this eye-popping one, that the incompetence was rather breathtaking. A sample:

Collectively, the U.S. government had its head in the sand. The FBI had no representative at the meeting at the U.S. Embassy in Abuja, in the center of the country, the FBI maintains an attache only in Lagos, on the southern coast. The CIA did not tell the FBI about Abdulmutallab. Under the so-called Visa Viper program, the State Department received the report about the meeting with Abdulmutallab’s father, but it did not revoke the son’s visa. Rather, it made a note to closely scrutinize any future application to renew the visa. Likewise, the NCTC determined that there was no “reasonable suspicion” to conclude that Abdulmutallab was a terrorist, so he wasn’t put on the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center watch list of some 400,000 names, or counted as one of 13,000 people who require extra screening before getting on a plane, or one of 4,000 names who are on the “no fly” list banned from getting on a plane at all. . .

The NCTC was set up to make sure that the various American agencies and intelligence services better shared information in the wake of 9/11, which might have been averted if the CIA and FBI had been in better communication about the al-Qaeda hijackers entering the country. But for reasons still not adequately explained, no one seems to have noticed other red flags in the intelligence system. The intelligence community had already picked up the intercepts indicating that al-Qaeda was planning to use a Nigerian for an attack on America. Other intercepts suggested a terror attack out of Yemen at Christmas, though officials believed the likely target would be somewhere in the Middle East, not in the United States. Finally, there were the intercepts between Abdulmutallab and the phone (and possibly a computer) used by al-Awlaki, the Yemen-based cleric. Such contact would seem to cry out for attention although an intelligence official said the intercepts did not indicate Abdulmutallab’s full name.

And so it goes. But from watching Brennan, one senses that the Obami are banking on the public not fully grasping this. One has the nagging feeling that they are hoping to get by on flimflam and recycled talking points. The dutiful spokespeople — Napolitano and now Brennan — are striving to keep their own jobs and to hold back the torrent of outrage that they fear will sweep them from office. So they are not informing or reassuring us. They are practicing damage control — limit the facts, label the facts, attack the critics, and minimize the enormity of the screw up.

How this incident is being handled suggests that some real Congressional oversight might be needed, or better yet, an independent commission. (Perhaps the 9/11 commission can be brought back since they’ve already figured out what to look for and what bureaucratic bumbling looks like.) At the very least, one wishes that the malefactors who are at least partially responsible would step aside and let those less invested in spinning the story explain what went wrong.

Read Less