It may well be that Dennis Blair deserved to be fired from his position as director of national intelligence. But some of the reasons that are being cited in the press for his firing point to much deeper problems with the Obama administration’s approach to counterterrorism—problems that will not go away with Blair’s involuntary departure.
Blair apparently burned bridges with the White House when he told a congressional committee that the Christmas Day bomber should have been interrogated by the Obama administration’s new High-Value Interrogation Group (HIG), which was announced with much fanfare in the summer of 2009 as a less controversial alternative to the CIA’s canceled high-value interrogation program. It turned out that the HIG could not have been called in to interrogate Abdulmutallab because it had not yet been stood up. Blair should have known this, and his gaffe was embarrassing to the president. But more embarrassing was the fact that nearly a year after President Obama shut down the CIA interrogation program, its replacement was still not functioning.
Six months later, the HIG is still not being used to interrogate high-value terrorists. In January, U.S. and Pakistani officials accidentally captured the highest-ranking Taliban leader ever detained in the war on terror: Mullah Baradar. Despite the fact that Baradar was “arguably the most important terrorist suspect captured since the detention of Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed in spring of 2003,” Newsweek reports that the HIG has not even been deployed to interrogate him.
The fact is, after nearly 18 months in office, the Obama administration still has no capability to capture, detain, and effectively interrogate senior terrorist leaders. Indeed, they are not even trying to bring such leaders in alive. According to a Washington Post story in February, there have been “no reports of high-value detentions” since Obama took office. Indeed, the Post reported that when U.S. officials located the leader of al Qaeda in East Africa, Saleh Ali Nabhan, the military gave President Obama the option to capture him alive for interrogation or just kill him. Obama chose to kill him. With that decision, the Post reported, “The opportunity to interrogate one of the most wanted U.S. terrorism targets was gone forever.”
Another reason cited for Blair’s firing was the recent report from the Senate Intelligence Committee which concluded that the National Counterterrorism Center was largely to blame for failing to connect the dots on the Christmas Day attack. But the more important conclusion contained in the report came later. It declared that “prior to the 12/25 plot, counterterrorism analysts at NCTC, CIA, and NSA were focused on the threat of terrorist attacks in Yemen, but were not focused on the possibility of AQAP [Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] attacks against the U.S. homeland … [This] contributed to the failure of analysts to recognize and collate the several pieces of intelligence reporting that mentioned Abdulmutallab.”
In other words, the Obama administration did not recognize that AQAP had morphed from a local terrorist network focused on attacks in Yemen into a transnational terrorist network with the intent and capability of striking the United States—so when it had several pieces of intelligence indicating a threat to the homeland, it failed to connect them and stop the attack.
And why didn’t the intelligence community recognize the transformation of AQAP into a threat to the homeland? Because President Obama eliminated our capability to capture and interrogate the al Qaeda leaders who could have told us this information.
In my book, Courting Disaster, former CIA Director Mike Hayden explains that intelligence is like trying to put together a puzzle. You have all the pieces laid out on the table in front of you, and you have to fit them together—except you are not allowed to see the picture on the cover of the box. There is only one way to get a look at the picture on the cover of the box, and that is to capture the people who know what the picture looks like—the KSMs of the world who drew the picture in the first place. When we capture and interrogate a senior al Qaeda leader like KSM, he gives us more than additional pieces of the puzzle—he can tell our intelligence community how the pieces we already have fit together. He can give us the information we were missing before the Christmas Day attack. He can tell us what the final picture looks like.
Our failure to stop the Christmas Day attack stems from the fact that we had the pieces of the puzzle, but we did not have the picture on the cover of the box. Until we restore the capability to get that picture, the terrorists will continue penetrating our defenses. Firing Dennis Blair may be a good decision, but it won’t solve the larger problem—because the source of that problem is higher up the chain of command.