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Are we less safe?

Posted: Wednesday, March 03, 2010

The following editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune:

Is America less safe under the Obama administration? Former Vice President Dick Cheney and other Republican critics think so. "We are at war," Cheney said after the failed terrorist attack on Flight 253 on Christmas Day. "And when President Obama pretends we aren't it makes us less safe."

But another high-profile Republican, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, recently fired back: "The nation is still at risk. Terrorists are out there. They're trying to get through. But to suggest that somehow we have become much less safer because of the actions of the administration, I don't think that's borne out by the facts."

Unfortunately, the government fed concerns with its response to the attempted bombing on Flight 253.

The FBI interrogated the suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, for 50 minutes. At that point, interrogators stopped their questioning so Abdulmutallab could get medical treatment for the injuries he suffered when he allegedly tried to ignite explosive powder in his underwear and bring down the plane.

Hours later, when they got their next chance to talk to him, Justice Department authorities treated him like a routine criminal defendant. He was advised of his rights, including the right to remain silent.

Abdulmutallab stopped talking. The government lost the opportunity to learn if he knew of other coordinated attacks in the works. Fortunately, there weren't any. At least, no others were attempted.

The highest priority in this situation was to gain intelligence about imminent threats, and learn who prepared and sent Abdulmutallab and how he avoided security.

There was no need to treat him foremost as a potential criminal defendant. A delay in reading his rights wouldn't have put him in jeopardy. It might have jeopardized the government's case against him. A judge wouldn't allow prosecutors to use statements he made during interrogation before he was told of his right against self-incrimination. In this case, that probably would not have weakened a prosecution, given all the available evidence, including a planeload of witnesses.

There was more: The Justice Department didn't even notify Dennis Blair, the nation's top intelligence official, about the questioning of Abdulmutallab. That was a failure of coordination by America's law enforcement agencies, a disturbing echo of the FBI-CIA rivalry exposed after the Sept. 11 attacks.

A special interrogation team of federal agents and intelligence officers was supposed to be set up to grill such high-value prisoners. It hadn't been formed yet; officials were still ironing out the details.

So Barack Obama's team has made some mistakes and needs to learn from them quickly.

All in all, though, its direction has not created greater risk. Even opponents of closing the Guantanamo Bay detention camp should acknowledge that that won't imperil American citizens. Attorney General Eric Holder's plan to try accused 9/11 plotter Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in Manhattan was boneheaded, given the immense security problems and cost posed by the location. But criminal trials for terrorism-related activities can be held in more easily secured locations in the U.S. - and have been. Terror suspects were tried and convicted in federal courts, without incident, during the Bush administration.

There is an urgency to this debate. A few weeks ago, Blair issued a precise and scary warning: Americans should expect an attempted terrorist attack on U.S. soil in the next three to six months. "The priority is certain," he told a Senate committee. FBI Director Robert Mueller and CIA Director Leon Panetta, agreed.

The nation has been warned repeatedly since Sept. 11, 2001 - most notably by members of the commission formed to investigate the attacks - that it has not adequately prepared to fend off another one.

That's not a situation created by the Obama administration. The administration hasn't made us less safe. It does, though, have the responsibility to make us safer now.



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