Commentary Magazine


Topic: Guantanamo

Was One Week Enough Time to Interrogate Libya Terror Suspect?

Abu Anas al-Libi, the al-Qaeda suspect nabbed by Delta Force in a raid on Libya on October 5, spent the past week being interrogated by intelligence officers aboard a navy ship. Now he has been brought to New York to stand trial for his role in the 1998 bombing of two US embassies in Africa. This is bound to prove controversial with those who believe he rightly belongs at the Guantanamo detention center, followed by trial in by a special tribunal rather than in a federal district court.

For my part I am agnostic about the venue of trial and the issue of where he and other terrorist suspects are held–as long as it is possible to arrest them, conduct interrogations without having them “lawyer up,” and then to convict and punish them for their attacks. Whether those attacks are defined as criminal acts or acts of war is less important than the issue of whether they will be brought to some kind of justice and whether their full intelligence value is exploited along the way.

It’s hard to know whether this happened in Al-Libi’s case.

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Abu Anas al-Libi, the al-Qaeda suspect nabbed by Delta Force in a raid on Libya on October 5, spent the past week being interrogated by intelligence officers aboard a navy ship. Now he has been brought to New York to stand trial for his role in the 1998 bombing of two US embassies in Africa. This is bound to prove controversial with those who believe he rightly belongs at the Guantanamo detention center, followed by trial in by a special tribunal rather than in a federal district court.

For my part I am agnostic about the venue of trial and the issue of where he and other terrorist suspects are held–as long as it is possible to arrest them, conduct interrogations without having them “lawyer up,” and then to convict and punish them for their attacks. Whether those attacks are defined as criminal acts or acts of war is less important than the issue of whether they will be brought to some kind of justice and whether their full intelligence value is exploited along the way.

It’s hard to know whether this happened in Al-Libi’s case.

The administration gets credit for sending Delta Force to grab him, rather than relying on the dysfunctional Libyan legal system to arrest and extradite him. Give Obama credit also for allowing him to be interrogated (without, one hopes, being read his Miranda rights) for a week aboard a Navy ship–Obama’s substitute for the CIA “black sites” initially favored by the Bush administration. But one week is not a very long time to interrogate such a potentially valuable suspect. A thorough interrogation would involve establishing a rapport with him or otherwise getting him to talk and then crosschecking his information with other sources, going back to him to probe inconsistencies and lies, etc.

Let’s hope he sang like a canary and that his interrogators got everything out of him there is to know. If not, that would be a shame, because he may well have information that could foil future terrorist plots. And let us hope that the legal case against him is ironclad enough to guarantee conviction by a civilian jury without risk of having to disclose classified information in open court.

Assuming those two tests have been met, there should be no objection to the way the administration has handled him. But we don’t have enough information yet to say whether that has in fact occurred.

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Don’t Return Detainees to the Battlefield

Last week, I argued the need for internationally recognized rules for the handling of terrorist suspects so as to avoid cases such as the one in Britain where one of al-Qaeda’s leading clerics in Europe may wind up being released after an EU court ruled he could not be deported to his home country, Jordan. Now comes another bit of news that underlines the need for some kind of solution for handling terrorists:

It seems the Obama administration wants to repatriate back to their home countries approximately 50 foreign detainees being held at the main U.S. detention facility in Afghanistan, prior to handing it over to Afghan authorities who have little interest in, or capability of, holding these dangerous men. The problem is that many of the detainees are Pakistani or Yemeni, and there is scant cause to think either country will hold them securely. Yemen, which appears increasingly to be ungoverned, simply lacks the capability to hold dangerous detainees; Pakistan, or at least elements of its army and intelligence service, may be in collusion with them.

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Last week, I argued the need for internationally recognized rules for the handling of terrorist suspects so as to avoid cases such as the one in Britain where one of al-Qaeda’s leading clerics in Europe may wind up being released after an EU court ruled he could not be deported to his home country, Jordan. Now comes another bit of news that underlines the need for some kind of solution for handling terrorists:

It seems the Obama administration wants to repatriate back to their home countries approximately 50 foreign detainees being held at the main U.S. detention facility in Afghanistan, prior to handing it over to Afghan authorities who have little interest in, or capability of, holding these dangerous men. The problem is that many of the detainees are Pakistani or Yemeni, and there is scant cause to think either country will hold them securely. Yemen, which appears increasingly to be ungoverned, simply lacks the capability to hold dangerous detainees; Pakistan, or at least elements of its army and intelligence service, may be in collusion with them.

 So what to do? The obvious answer is to send them to Guantanamo, which was set up for precisely this purpose. But the Obama administration refuses to do so. Although it has not managed to close Gitmo, it will not send fresh detainees there either. That creates a difficult dilemma in dealing with these terrorists who are likely to return to the battlefield if released.

It would make a lot of sense to convene a new Geneva Convention so that the civilized nations of the world can agree on a body of law for dealing with them. That, of course, would take a while even under the best of circumstances. In the meantime, the administration needs to overcome its ideological predisposition against Gitmo and do what’s best for American security.

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“Hunt One Head and Hunt It Famously”

Much of the buzz about Jodi Kantor’s new book, The Obamas, has centered on the gossipy angles of First Lady Michelle Obama’s adjustment to the White House and open conflict with top Obama advisers. But there are also less inside-baseball anecdotes of interest.

One such example in the book–which is, by the way, so relentlessly positive toward President Obama that it reads like a series of letters the president wrote to himself to buck up his spirits–comes when the president realizes his campaign promises on Guantanamo and detainee policy were foolhardy now that he has all the information. One day, the president brought in a group of law professors and civil liberties activists to meet with him, in the hope they would criticize him there in private and not do so publicly:

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Much of the buzz about Jodi Kantor’s new book, The Obamas, has centered on the gossipy angles of First Lady Michelle Obama’s adjustment to the White House and open conflict with top Obama advisers. But there are also less inside-baseball anecdotes of interest.

One such example in the book–which is, by the way, so relentlessly positive toward President Obama that it reads like a series of letters the president wrote to himself to buck up his spirits–comes when the president realizes his campaign promises on Guantanamo and detainee policy were foolhardy now that he has all the information. One day, the president brought in a group of law professors and civil liberties activists to meet with him, in the hope they would criticize him there in private and not do so publicly:

But Obama didn’t pull his punches. “When I was a senator running for office, I talked very firmly about what I thought was right based on the information I had,” Vince Warren, of the Center for Constitutional Rights, recalled the president saying. “Now I’m the president of all the people, and the decisions I make have to be from that perspective based on the information I now have.” His face emotionless, he told his guests that he was considering an indefinite detention policy, allowing authorities to hold certain suspects without charges. It was an “Oh my God moment,” one guest said later.

Good for the president to say that instead of blaming others, at least. But the worst moment of the meeting took place at its conclusion, when ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero repeated his plea for Obama to prosecute Bush officials. Romero said: “Hunt one head and hunt it famously and bring it down to ensure we don’t make the same mistakes again.”

Obama, to his great credit, told Romero he was alone on that ledge and dismissed the meeting.

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Obama’s Muddled Thinking on Afghanistan

The Washington Post has an article today about the umpteenth instance of failed talks with the Taliban, with the U.S. apparently offering to release Taliban detainees from Guantanamo in return for a (worthless) promise from the Taliban to renounce international terrorism. The deal was scuttled, according to the Post, by (legitimate) objections from Hamid Karzai, but it is not clear if the administration could have carried out its end anyway because of domestic opposition to releasing more hardened terrorists from Gitmo.

What was really fascinating to me in this article was a section from the middle:

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The Washington Post has an article today about the umpteenth instance of failed talks with the Taliban, with the U.S. apparently offering to release Taliban detainees from Guantanamo in return for a (worthless) promise from the Taliban to renounce international terrorism. The deal was scuttled, according to the Post, by (legitimate) objections from Hamid Karzai, but it is not clear if the administration could have carried out its end anyway because of domestic opposition to releasing more hardened terrorists from Gitmo.

What was really fascinating to me in this article was a section from the middle:

President Obama has already ordered the withdrawal by September of the 33,000 troops he sent to Afghanistan last year. “The big debate,” a Defense official said, is “can you come up with another number for what happens over the next 12 months” after that drawdown. “The argument will once again be the military saying let’s keep it at 68,000,” the number of troops who will remain in September, “and [Vice President] Biden saying let’s get it down to 20,000 really quickly, with the reality somewhere in between.”

Although Biden lost the argument over the surge in late 2009, officials said the internal administration balance has shifted toward a steeper glide path that would put the Afghans in charge sooner rather than later, in conjunction with a political settlement.

This is a fair description, I believe, of the president’s deeply muddled thinking on the future of Afghanistan. It suggests that he will make future decisions as he made decisions in the past: on a split-the-difference model. In 2010, he tacitly endorsed Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s request to pursue a full-blown counterinsurgency strategy but provided the minimal amount of resources required—only about 30,000 extra troops, which was at the “high risk” side of the options offered by McChrystal. This was in essence an attempt to compromise between McChrystal and Joe Biden, who advocated sending even fewer troops and pursuing a lesser, counterterrorism-focused mission. Then in June of this year, Obama ordered the premature withdrawal of those 30,000+ troops—they will be pulled out by September 2012, well ahead of the recommendations of military commanders. Now, with military commanders asking to keep at least 68,000 troops through 2014, President Obama seems set to draw down much faster than they recommend—although not to the extent advocated by the most strident anti-war voices.

You can see the political logic of what Obama is doing: He is trying to please both hawks and doves. Unfortunately, war is not a realm where half measures are likely to succeed. Adopting an ambitious strategy, as we’ve done in Afghanistan, but not resourcing it adequately, as Obama has also done, is a recipe for slow-motion failure. It is a high-risk strategy that is likely to get a lot of troops killed and for no good reason. Paradoxically, sending more troops would actually reduce casualties by making it easier to dominate the battlefield.

Not only does this make little sense strategically, it makes little sense politically: Obama will get just as much flak for keeping 50,000 troops in Afghanistan
as he would for 68,000. But the higher number provides a greater chance of success; more troops still would heighten our chances even more. If we are going to fight in Afghanistan, Obama needs to go “all in” as President Bush did during the surge in Iraq. He should not pin his hopes on peace talks which are unlikely to go anywhere.

 

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Punt!

Obama was going to get a full update today, showing he was on top of the terrorist plot and the efforts to get to the bottom of things. But alas, he is just talking on the phone to John Brennan and Janet Napolitano. And he’s going to get some more reports. It is all, once again, spin zone: make it seem as if the president is urgently engaged, continue the endless churning of behind-closed-door reviews, and promise more of the same. (“I anticipate receiving assessments from several agencies this evening and will review those tonight and over the course of the weekend. On Tuesday, in Washington, I will meet personally with relevant agency heads to discuss our ongoing reviews as well as security enhancements and intelligence-sharing improvements in our homeland security and counterterrorism operations.”) And no, Hillary Clinton was not one of those the president said he had consulted. (The mystery continues!)

As I expected, there is nothing even remotely suggesting a systemic review of the administration’s approach to terror. They are focusing on relatively discrete matters, it seems (e.g., watch lists and the proverbial connecting of dots). And no comment, of course, on the release today of Iranian terrorists who killed Americans. Because that’s totally different, you see. The capture and release of terrorists, the criminal-justice model, and the willful indifference to the ideological underpinnings of our enemies are not, I think, on the agenda. This is about containing the “failure” and doing just enough to assure the public, though nothing to disrupt the ideological fixation of the administration.

UPDATE: For starters if the adminstration was interested in getting to the bottom of its security debacle it might answer the five letters Rep. Frank Wolf has sent requesting information of release of Guantanamo detainees to Yemen, Afghanistan and Somalia.

Obama was going to get a full update today, showing he was on top of the terrorist plot and the efforts to get to the bottom of things. But alas, he is just talking on the phone to John Brennan and Janet Napolitano. And he’s going to get some more reports. It is all, once again, spin zone: make it seem as if the president is urgently engaged, continue the endless churning of behind-closed-door reviews, and promise more of the same. (“I anticipate receiving assessments from several agencies this evening and will review those tonight and over the course of the weekend. On Tuesday, in Washington, I will meet personally with relevant agency heads to discuss our ongoing reviews as well as security enhancements and intelligence-sharing improvements in our homeland security and counterterrorism operations.”) And no, Hillary Clinton was not one of those the president said he had consulted. (The mystery continues!)

As I expected, there is nothing even remotely suggesting a systemic review of the administration’s approach to terror. They are focusing on relatively discrete matters, it seems (e.g., watch lists and the proverbial connecting of dots). And no comment, of course, on the release today of Iranian terrorists who killed Americans. Because that’s totally different, you see. The capture and release of terrorists, the criminal-justice model, and the willful indifference to the ideological underpinnings of our enemies are not, I think, on the agenda. This is about containing the “failure” and doing just enough to assure the public, though nothing to disrupt the ideological fixation of the administration.

UPDATE: For starters if the adminstration was interested in getting to the bottom of its security debacle it might answer the five letters Rep. Frank Wolf has sent requesting information of release of Guantanamo detainees to Yemen, Afghanistan and Somalia.

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Do You Feel Safer?

Americans aren’t feeling safer these days:

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 79% of U.S. voters now think it is likely there will be another terrorist attack in the United States in the next year. That’s a 30-point jump from the end of August when just 49% of Americans felt that way.

Didn’t they hear? We’re closing Guantanamo, giving KSM a civil trial, stopping enhanced interrogation techniques and re-investigating the CIA. All that and yet 70 percent think we’re going to be hit again.

Meanwhile, three days after the Christmas Day bombing was thwarted by a combination of luck and alert passengers, the Saudi arm of al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the attack. And Obama? Oh, yes, he, as the New York Times indelicately put it, “emerged from seclusion” to tell us he’s being briefed, everyone should be “vigilant but confident” (Who comes up with this stuff?) and that he really gets it that there are terrorists in a bunch of places who want to kill us. Sounding oddly like OJ Simpson, he vowed, “We will not rest until we find all who were involved and hold them accountable.” (Yes, it’s apparently just a giant manhunt for the culprits, in the parlance of the criminal-justice perspective to which the administration clings so dearly.) He took no questions. After all, someone might ask a sticky one, such as “Why Janet Napolitano is still working for you?” or “Why did you think it advisable to release Guantanamo detainees to Yemen?”

Even the Times reporter could not conceal his disdain for the president’s shabby handing of the terror attack:

Pictures of passengers enduring tougher security screening at the airport were juxtaposed against images of the president soaking in the sun and surf of this tropical getaway. Mr. Obama, who put on a suit though no tie for his statement Monday, has ordered a review of the two major planks of the aviation security system — watch lists and detection equipment at air — port checkpoints. Some members of Congress urgently questioned why, more than eight years after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, security measures could not keep makeshift bombs off airliners.

This eerily brings to mind Obama’s campaign hideout when Russia invaded Georgia. For days he remained secluded then too, only to emerge from the palm trees when his then-opponent John McCain had issued multiple statements. But Obama is president now and the public is increasingly concerned about his ability to protect them. We really could use a commander in chief who understands the nature of the enemy and who can do better than a belated statement days after the third domestic terror attack of his presidency.

Americans aren’t feeling safer these days:

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 79% of U.S. voters now think it is likely there will be another terrorist attack in the United States in the next year. That’s a 30-point jump from the end of August when just 49% of Americans felt that way.

Didn’t they hear? We’re closing Guantanamo, giving KSM a civil trial, stopping enhanced interrogation techniques and re-investigating the CIA. All that and yet 70 percent think we’re going to be hit again.

Meanwhile, three days after the Christmas Day bombing was thwarted by a combination of luck and alert passengers, the Saudi arm of al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the attack. And Obama? Oh, yes, he, as the New York Times indelicately put it, “emerged from seclusion” to tell us he’s being briefed, everyone should be “vigilant but confident” (Who comes up with this stuff?) and that he really gets it that there are terrorists in a bunch of places who want to kill us. Sounding oddly like OJ Simpson, he vowed, “We will not rest until we find all who were involved and hold them accountable.” (Yes, it’s apparently just a giant manhunt for the culprits, in the parlance of the criminal-justice perspective to which the administration clings so dearly.) He took no questions. After all, someone might ask a sticky one, such as “Why Janet Napolitano is still working for you?” or “Why did you think it advisable to release Guantanamo detainees to Yemen?”

Even the Times reporter could not conceal his disdain for the president’s shabby handing of the terror attack:

Pictures of passengers enduring tougher security screening at the airport were juxtaposed against images of the president soaking in the sun and surf of this tropical getaway. Mr. Obama, who put on a suit though no tie for his statement Monday, has ordered a review of the two major planks of the aviation security system — watch lists and detection equipment at air — port checkpoints. Some members of Congress urgently questioned why, more than eight years after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, security measures could not keep makeshift bombs off airliners.

This eerily brings to mind Obama’s campaign hideout when Russia invaded Georgia. For days he remained secluded then too, only to emerge from the palm trees when his then-opponent John McCain had issued multiple statements. But Obama is president now and the public is increasingly concerned about his ability to protect them. We really could use a commander in chief who understands the nature of the enemy and who can do better than a belated statement days after the third domestic terror attack of his presidency.

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To Yemen?

Rep. Frank Wolf has sent a letter to the Justice Department and issued a press release questioning the release of Guantanamo detainees to Yemen, especially “in light of the recent tragedy at Fort Hood where the alleged shooter reportedly has ties to a radical cleric now living in Yemen.” Yes, that is correct. Wolf’s press release explains:

“The American people have a right to know who these detainees are and what acts of terror they were engaged in,” Wolf wrote. “If the public had this information, they would never tolerate the release of these men back to unstable countries with a sizeable al Qaeda presence.” …

“If the administration does not halt these pending releases immediately, it could be responsible for creating a new revolving door of terrorism that will cost American lives,” Wolf wrote today. “The security of the American people could be at risk because of the administration’s relentless pursuit of a campaign promise to close Guantanamo Bay by January 22, 2010.”

“Why has the administration made basic information about these dangerous detainees so highly classified that it cannot be shared with the American people or the media?” Wolf asked. “I have reviewed the materials. These are dangerous individuals. To release committed al Qaeda terrorists back to Yemen under these conditions would be an act of gross malfeasance that undermines the safety of the American people.”

In his statement, Wolf also raised the red flag about Anwar al-Aulaqi, “the radical cleric now living in Yemen who has ties to Fort Hood gunman Major Nidal M. Hasan and also mentored two of the 9/11 hijackers.” Wolf does not subscribe to the view that Hasan was simply suffering from post-traumatic stress:

“As the facts surrounding the Fort Hood attack have emerged, it is becoming clear that anyone who is cited in the 9/11 Commission Report — as al-Aulaqi was on page 221 — as a ‘significant’ contact for 9/11 terrorists Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar should be considered a ‘significant’ connection to Hasan,” Wolf wrote. “Al-Aulaqi has subsequently praised Hasan’s attack stating on his Web site: ‘Nidal Hassan is a hero. … Nidal opened fire on soldiers who were on their way to be deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. How can there be any dispute about the virtue of what he has done? In fact the only way a Muslim could Islamically justify serving as a soldier in the US army is if his intention is to follow the footsteps of men like Nidal,’’’ according to a translation.

Really, if not for the appalling decision to move 9/11 ringleader Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to the U.S. for a trial — that will soon devolve into a three-ring circus in which the U.S. and its defenders are in the dock — the decision to export the Guantanamo detainees to Yemen, where they can hear the same pearls of wisdom that inspired Hasan, would be tops on the list of “most outrageous things” the Obama team has done recently. But there is always plenty of competition for that distinction.

Rep. Frank Wolf has sent a letter to the Justice Department and issued a press release questioning the release of Guantanamo detainees to Yemen, especially “in light of the recent tragedy at Fort Hood where the alleged shooter reportedly has ties to a radical cleric now living in Yemen.” Yes, that is correct. Wolf’s press release explains:

“The American people have a right to know who these detainees are and what acts of terror they were engaged in,” Wolf wrote. “If the public had this information, they would never tolerate the release of these men back to unstable countries with a sizeable al Qaeda presence.” …

“If the administration does not halt these pending releases immediately, it could be responsible for creating a new revolving door of terrorism that will cost American lives,” Wolf wrote today. “The security of the American people could be at risk because of the administration’s relentless pursuit of a campaign promise to close Guantanamo Bay by January 22, 2010.”

“Why has the administration made basic information about these dangerous detainees so highly classified that it cannot be shared with the American people or the media?” Wolf asked. “I have reviewed the materials. These are dangerous individuals. To release committed al Qaeda terrorists back to Yemen under these conditions would be an act of gross malfeasance that undermines the safety of the American people.”

In his statement, Wolf also raised the red flag about Anwar al-Aulaqi, “the radical cleric now living in Yemen who has ties to Fort Hood gunman Major Nidal M. Hasan and also mentored two of the 9/11 hijackers.” Wolf does not subscribe to the view that Hasan was simply suffering from post-traumatic stress:

“As the facts surrounding the Fort Hood attack have emerged, it is becoming clear that anyone who is cited in the 9/11 Commission Report — as al-Aulaqi was on page 221 — as a ‘significant’ contact for 9/11 terrorists Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar should be considered a ‘significant’ connection to Hasan,” Wolf wrote. “Al-Aulaqi has subsequently praised Hasan’s attack stating on his Web site: ‘Nidal Hassan is a hero. … Nidal opened fire on soldiers who were on their way to be deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. How can there be any dispute about the virtue of what he has done? In fact the only way a Muslim could Islamically justify serving as a soldier in the US army is if his intention is to follow the footsteps of men like Nidal,’’’ according to a translation.

Really, if not for the appalling decision to move 9/11 ringleader Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to the U.S. for a trial — that will soon devolve into a three-ring circus in which the U.S. and its defenders are in the dock — the decision to export the Guantanamo detainees to Yemen, where they can hear the same pearls of wisdom that inspired Hasan, would be tops on the list of “most outrageous things” the Obama team has done recently. But there is always plenty of competition for that distinction.

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