By Chris Strohm
February 3, 2010
Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair lashed out on Wednesday at how politicized the government's handling of the Christmas bombing plot has become, saying the debate has not been "particularly good" for intelligence and law enforcement officials trying to keep the country safe.
"I've been surprised by the combination of reality and politics having to do with this issue," Blair said during a House Intelligence Committee hearing, referring to the arrest of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab for attempting to blow up Northwest Flight 253 near Detroit on Christmas.
"I just can't control all of the politics," he said.
The incident has created a firestorm on Capitol Hill. Some Intelligence Committee Republicans criticized the White House for informing reporters late Tuesday that Abdulmutallab has resumed cooperating with investigators after weeks of silence once U.S. authorities read him his Miranda rights.
"The political dimension of what can be [and what] ought to be a national security issue has been quite high," Blair said. "I don't think it's been very particularly good, I will tell you, from the inside in terms of us trying to get the right job done to protect the United States."
"We're just trying to bring intelligence and law enforcement to bear to get the right information, to make sure that those who threaten our country get behind bars. And I just don't want to go into the political side of it," he said.
But political attacks continued to escalate, as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., bashed the Obama administration over the incident in a speech Wednesday at the Heritage Foundation. He criticized nearly every aspect of President Obama's antiterrorism efforts, charging that he has "too often put symbolism over security."
"The attempted Christmas Day bombing should have been a wake-up call," McConnell said. "Unfortunately, there's no evidence it was."
"The administration still appears more interested in managing its message than explaining to the American people and to lawmakers on both sides of the aisle why an al-Qaida-trained terrorist fresh from Yemen and caught in the act of attempting to blow up an airliner was handed over to a lawyer after a 50-minute interview," McConnell said.
The administration's biggest mistake, McConnell said, was to treat international terrorism as a law-enforcement matter, instead of acts of war, and putting Attorney General Eric Holder "in charge of key intelligence and military and defense matters."
"This is wrong. The attorney general should not be running the war on terror," he said.
Holder sent a letter to McConnell and 10 other GOP senators defending the decision.
"The decision to charge Mr. Abdulmutallab in federal court, and the methods used to interrogate him, are fully consistent with the long-established and publicly known policies and practices of the Department of Justice, the FBI, and the United States Government as a whole, as implemented for many years by Administrations of both parties," Holder wrote.
Holder added that Abdulmutallab has recently provided additional intelligence to the FBI.
Meanwhile, Republicans sent a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., on Wednesday asking for Holder to be summoned before the committee this month. The letter was signed by every Republican on the panel.
At the House hearing, Blair disclosed that Abdulmutallab is not being interrogated by a new group created specifically to question high-value terrorism suspects. But a law enforcement official downplayed the matter, saying Abdulmutallab is being questioned by a team that includes the FBI, CIA and behavioral analysts.
On Tuesday, FBI Director Robert Mueller and CIA Director Leon Panetta told a Senate hearing that the new group is finally operational, but Blair said the charter for it has not been finalized. The group was not operational in time to interrogate Abdulmutallab on Christmas Day, officials said.
Otto Kreisher contributed to this report.
By Chris Strohm
February 3, 2010