Recent congressional testimony has shed some interesting light on the treatment of Omar Abdulmutallab, the U-Trou Bomber, after his failed attempt to blow up a Northwest flight to Detroit on Christmas Day. Various intelligence officials testified that they were not consulted on how best to deal with Abdulmutallab, who was promptly charged with a crime, read Miranda rights, and provided with a court-appointed lawyer. Although the Obama Administration claims that Abdulmutallab provided some intelligence information, no effort was made to have him questioned by intelligence officials to see whether he could provide even more information. Even the Washington Post, in an editorial published yesterday, has criticized that approach.
From the standpoint of constitutional rights and protections, a foreign national clearly is different from an American citizen, and an attempted terrorist attack undertaken pursuant to instructions from an entity that is at war with the United States is different from a criminal act. Moreover, national security considerations related to getting fresh, actionable intelligence from the failed attacker may trump whatever minimal constitutional protections might apply at the point the terrorist is first detained. If Abdulmutallab could have provided immediate intelligence on the whereabouts of the al Qaeda operatives who trained and equipped him for his mission, such that we could promptly target and respond to those operatives, that possibility should have been incorporated into the analysis of how to deal with him. For all of these reasons, simply equating a foiled terrorist with a common criminal and treating them in the same way seems foolish and dangerous, unnecessarily hamstringing our ability to fight a shadowy organization committed to doing us harm.
I hope that the Obama Administration revisits its procedures and at least involves its intelligence agencies in the decision-making process the next time a failed terrorist is caught. Unfortunately for all of us, these kinds of opportunities aren’t commonplace. The U-Trou Bomber failed only because his ignition device misfired. How often will we have the chance to obtain fresh intelligence from a shaken, unsuccessful terrorist? Let’s hope that, if there is a next time, we take better advantage of that opportunity.