Obama administration officials were flabbergasted Wednesday when Director of National Intelligence Adm. Dennis Blair testified that an alleged Qaeda operative who tried to blow up a U.S. airliner on Christmas Day should have been questioned by a special interrogation unit that doesn't exist, rather than the FBI.
One senior official described the comments by Blair—the U.S. government's top intelligence official—as misinformed on multiple levels and all the more damaging because they immediately fueled Republican criticism that the administration mishandled the Christmas Day incident in its treatment of the accused Qaeda operative as a criminal suspect rather than an enemy combatant.
"People are annoyed, angry, and frustrated about this," said the senior official, who asked not to be identified, speaking about Blair's testimony. The official added that the White House has ordered Blair to "correct" his remarks. "He's taking a mulligan on this," the official said.
About an hour after the senior official made those remarks to Declassified, Blair issued this statement: "My remarks today before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs have been misconstrued. The FBI interrogated Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab when they took him into custody. They received important intelligence at that time, drawing on the FBI's expertise in interrogation that will be available in the HIG [High-Value Interrogation Group] once it is fully operational."
Blair's comments came during testimony before the Senate homeland-security committee on the events surrounding the attempt by alleged Qaeda operative Abdulmutallab to blow up the Northwest Airlines flight headed to Detroit.
Blair was asked by Sen. Susan M. Collins, the panel's ranking Republican, if he had been consulted about how Abdulmutallab should have been interrogated once he was apprehended in Detroit. She said she had been told that "once he was Miranda-ized and received civilian lawyers, that's exactly what he did: he stopped answering questions."
Blair said he was not consulted. He then referred to a High-Value Interrogation Group—a special unit that an Obama administration task force recommended be created last summer.
"That unit was created exactly for this purpose—to make a decision on whether a certain person who's detained should be treated as a case for federal prosecution or for some of the other means," Blair told the panel. "We did not invoke the HIG in this case; we should have. Frankly, we were thinking more of overseas people. And, you know, we didn't put it then—that's what we will do now. And—and so we need to make those decisions more carefully."
"I was not consulted," Blair added.
But officials who have worked on the issue said Blair was wrong on almost every count. Abdulmutallab couldn't possibly have been questioned by the HIG because the unit doesn't exist yet. The task force had recommended it be created to handle the questioning of "high value" Qaeda leaders who might be captured overseas—a criterion that clearly doesn't apply in Abdulmutallab's case. But the proposal is still being reviewed by the National Security Council, and the actual unit has not yet been created.
The specific recommendation, one source said, was to have a collection of intelligence officers and FBI agents who are knowledgeable about the background of the Qaeda leaders and deploy them—along with language and regional experts—as soon as a Qaeda leader was captured. But since Abdulmutallab was not a Qaeda leader, and was captured in Detroit, not overseas, the HIG wouldn't apply in any case, said the source, who worked closely on the proposal.
An official in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said that Blair "fully understand" that work on the HIG "has not been completed" when he gave his initial testimony. The official said officials are now working on the charter for the HIG--a document that will call for teams of intel experts and interrogators known as Mobile Interrogation Teams (or MITs) that will be dispatched when a top suspect is apprehended. When he responded to Collins, Blair was "talking about what should be included in the charter."
Administration officials said the comments by Blair were especially galling because they seemed to vindicate the chief Republican criticism of the handling of the Detroit incident. No sooner did Blair make his comments, for example, than Sen. Jeff Sessions, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, commented on what he called the "stunning revelations" in the director's testimony—including the fact that "Blair stated that the administration failed to deploy the high-value detainee interrogation group that was put in place for this very purpose."
Sen. Kit Bond, the ranking Republican on the Senate intelligence committee, said he was "shocked" that the intel community was shut out of the decision making on the treatment of the terrorist suspect.
"It's clear the administration's own intelligence officials think they fumbled the Christmas Day terrorist case," said Bond. "That this administration chose to shut out our top intelligence officials and forgo collecting potentially life-saving intelligence is a dangerous sign."
Obama administration officials are fearful that Blair may have ended up hand-delivering their Republican critics an issue by his misinformed remarks. "I didn't think there was going to be a fall guy for the Detroit incident," said the senior official. "But Blair may have just talked himself into being one."