Stop Blaming the CIA

The president is wrong to scapegoat the intelligence agency for failing to connect the dots on the Christmas bomber. Former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen on why Obama’s early moves tied our hands in the war on terror.

01.09.10 6:24 PM ET

The report released by the White House Thursday into the failure to stop al Qaeda’s attempt to blow up a passenger plane over Detroit found a number of mistakes were made—including the misspelling of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s name and the failure to put him on the no-fly list. But the ultimate failure was much larger. According to the New York Times, “The report concluded that the government’s counterterrorism operations had been caught off guard by the sophistication and strength of a Qaeda cell in Yemen, where officials say the plot against the United States originated.”

President Obama laid blame for this failure on the agency he has put under siege since his second day in office: the CIA. “This was not a failure to collect intelligence,” he declared this week, “it was a failure to integrate and understand the intelligence we had …. That’s not acceptable and I will not tolerate it.” But the President’s chief counterterrorism advisor, John Brennan, told a different story, acknowledging that we did not, in fact, have all the intelligence we needed: “We did have the information throughout the course of the summer and fall about … plans to carry out attacks,” Brennan said. “We had snippets of information …. We may have had a partial name. We might have had an indication of a Nigerian. But there was nothing that brought it all together.”

The ability to detain and question senior terrorist operatives is not a luxury we can do without; it is essential to preventing new attacks on our country.

The question is: why did we have nothing that brought all the “snippets” of information together? Because within 48 hours after taking office, President Obama eliminated the only tool that would allow the intelligence community to do so: the CIA program to interrogate senior terrorist leaders. Thanks to Obama, America no longer have the capability to detain and question the only individuals who know how the information fits together—the terrorists themselves.

In the age of terror, our enemies do not have large armies or flotillas of warships that can be observed by spies or tracked by satellites. Instead, the terrorists conspire in secret, hide among civilians, and attack us from within. Their plans to kill innocent men, women, and children are known only to a handful of cruel men.

This means there are essentially three ways to gain information about terrorist attacks:

The first, and hardest, is to penetrate the enemy. This can be done, but it is no easy task. Al Qaeda is a small, secretive network of Arab extremists that is extremely suspicious of outsiders. And we saw this week just how difficult it is to penetrate their ranks. The terrorist who blew up a CIA base in Afghanistan—killing seven operatives—turns out to have been a double agent, a trusted source who was really working for the enemy.

The second method is “signals intelligence”—using advanced technology to intercept and monitor the enemy’s electronic communications. Signals intelligence has been essential to the fight against terror, but it has inherent limitations. When intelligence officials monitor terrorist communications, they are passive listeners to the conversations of others. They cannot ask questions, probe for additional information, or sometimes even identify voices or email addresses in intercepted communications. Moreover, the terrorists know they are being monitored, so they are careful to speak codes that are difficult to break without inside information.

This leaves only one other human intelligence tool: interrogation. The interrogation of senior terrorist leaders has distinct advantages over other forms human intelligence. It allows our intelligence professionals to ask the terrorists direct questions. Because terrorists are held in secret and cut off from the outside world, CIA officials can expose sensitive intelligence to them during questioning without fear it will get back to terrorists at large. CIA officials can use information gained from one detainee to question other detainees—and then go back and confront the first detainee with what they learned. Captured terrorists can also help the CIA verify whether the sources we recruit inside al Qaeda are trustworthy, and providing reliable information. They can identify voices in phone calls and email addresses, and decipher enemy codes that would otherwise remain a mystery. No other tool provides our intelligence community with this kind of dynamic flexibility.

Moreover, while signals intelligence or sources can give us the “snippets of information” Brennan says we had about the Detroit attack, only the interrogation of captured terrorists can give us the full picture we were lacking in this case—the information needed to prevent attacks. As former CIA Director Mike Hayden explained in an interview for my book, Courting Disaster, “Intelligence is like putting a puzzle together and never being allowed to see the picture on the cover of the box. The people who got into the CIA program were, by definition, senior leaders. They had seen the cover. And so, they were valued for more than the fact that they knew data. They knew what the final picture roughly looked like.”

In other words, a captured terrorist can do more than give the CIA additional pieces of the puzzle; he can tell the agency how all the various pieces of the puzzle fit together. He can show us the cover of the box.

According to recently declassified CIA documents, after 9/11, there were two terrorist networks at large that were planning new attacks on America: the Khalid Sheikh Mohammed network that planned the 9/11 attacks (and had set in motion plots to fly planes in to Heathrow airport and blow up the U.S. consulate in Karachi), and the “Hambali network” which KSM had tasked to hijack an airplane and fly it into the Library Tower in Los Angeles. We knew virtually nothing about these two networks or their plans—until KSM and other senior al Qaeda leaders provided information under CIA questioning that allowed us to dismantle them. (I can already hear the howls of protest from liberals who argue that no useful intel ever came from an enhanced interrogation technique. But they apparently never bothered to read the evidence to the contrary).

Now, eight years after 9/11, we face a new terror network—a mysterious branch of al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula that almost succeeded in bringing down a commercial airliner over one of America’s largest cities. By the Obama administration’s own admission, we know very little about this network or its plans to attack America. The reason is because we are not trying to capture the leaders of this network alive, and bring them in for interrogation so they can show us to cover of the box.

The ability to detain and question senior terrorist operatives is not a luxury we can do without; it is essential to preventing new attacks on our country. This is something John Brennan once understood. Asked in a 2007 interview if enhanced interrogation techniques were necessary to keep America safe, Brennan replied: “Would the U.S. be handicapped if the CIA was not, in fact, able to carry out these types of detention and debriefing activities? I would say yes.”

On his second day in office Obama eliminated this capability—and this, in his own advisor’s assessment, handicapped our country in the fight against terror. Indeed, President Obama has admitted as much. Speaking at the CIA soon after shutting down the CIA interrogation program, Obama told officials, “I’m sure that sometimes it seems as if that means we’re operating with one hand tied behind our back … So yes, you’ve got a harder job. And so do I. And that’s okay.”

It’s not okay, Mr. President. It almost caused another attack.

Marc Thiessen’s new book, Courting Disaster: How the CIA Kept America Safe and How Barack Obama is Inviting the Next Attack, will be published by Regnery on January 18th.