The president's job is not detecting bombs at the airport but neutralizing terrorists before they get there.There was much to celebrate in the providential combination of an incompetent terrorist and surpassingly brave passengers and crew who saved 288 people aboard Northwest Airlines flight 253 on Christmas Day. There is a lot less to applaud in the official reaction.
Well-deserved mockery has already been heaped on the move-along-folks-nothing-to-see-here tone of the administration's initial pronouncements—from Janet Napolitano's "the system worked," to President Obama's statement that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was an "isolated extremist." This week brought little improvement.
The president acknowledged that the plot had been hatched in Yemen, but not without adding the misleading statement that Yemen faces "crushing poverty and deadly insurgencies." That Yemenis have to cope with "crushing poverty" is irrelevant here. Abdulmutallab is the son of a wealthy Nigerian banker. Other jihadists, including the physician who blew himself up and killed seven CIA agents in Afghanistan last week, and indeed the millionaire Osama bin Laden, prove that poverty does not beget terrorists. "Deadly insurgencies" is a half-truth, which omits the fact that the Yemeni government itself has supported al Qaeda and continues to harbor at least two people—Jamal Ahmed Mohammed Ali al-Badawi and Fahad Mohammed Ahmed al-Quso—involved in the bombing of the USS Cole.
Then, too, there was the unfortunate metaphor chosen by a senior intelligence adviser to account for why a conspiracy helped along by at least two Guantanamo alumni had not been discovered before Abdulmutallab boarded the plane. There was, he said, "no smoking gun"—a clue one would expect to find after disaster strikes, not before. There were, as it happens, many smokeless but redolent clues lying about before the plane took off. These included Abdulmutallab's father's warning to the State Department that his son was being radicalized and had gone to Yemen; the one-way ticket purchased for cash; no luggage; and intercepted communication referring to a plot involving "the Nigerian" in Yemen.
Braggadocio aside, he was certainly aware of who had prepared the potentially deadly mix that was sewn in his underwear, who had trained him, where the training had taken place, whether there was in fact a South Asian man described by two other passengers who helped him talk his way on to the plane, and a good deal more. Such facts are valuable but evanescent intelligence. The location of people—and with it our ability to find and neutralize them—is subject to rapid change.
Had Abdulmutallab been turned over immediately to interrogators intent on gathering intelligence, valuable facts could have been gathered and perhaps acted upon. Indeed, a White House spokesman has confirmed that Abdulmutallab did disclose some actionable intelligence before he fell silent on advice of counsel. Nor is it any comfort to be told, as we were, by the senior intelligence adviser referred to above—he of the "no smoking gun"—that we can learn facts from Abdulmutallab as part of a plea bargaining process in connection with his prosecution.
Whatever that official thinks he knows about the plea bargaining process, he certainly should know that the kind of facts that Abdulmutallab might be expected to know have a shelf life that is a lot shorter than the plea bargaining process, assuming such a process ever gets started.
Holding Abdulmutallab for a time in military custody, regardless of where he is ultimately to be charged, would have been entirely lawful—even in the view of the current administration, which has taken the position that it needs no further legislative authority to hold dangerous detainees even for a lengthy period in the United States. Then we could decide at relative leisure where to charge him—whether before a military commission or before a civilian court. In Abdulmutallab's case, it would hardly make a difference, given the nature of most of the evidence against him. (Although potential disclosure of the body of intercepted communications that included reference to "the Nigerian" could prove problematic if the prosecution were to be brought in a civilian court.)
Those considerations, however, are entirely academic because Abdulmutallab was proceeded against—if that is the correct description—in a civilian tribunal where the first step was to get him a lawyer who promptly put an end to his disclosures. The point is less where Abdulmutallab will eventually be prosecuted than what use could have been made of him as an intelligence source. No consideration whatsoever appears to have been given to where Abdulmutallab fits in the foreign contingency operation (formerly known as the global war on terror) in which we are engaged.
Most recently we have had the promise of more rigorous searches at the airport, along with a White House summit meeting that featured a furrowed brow, an earnest injunction to "do better" at "connecting dots," an oddly benign reference to al Qaeda as our "agile adversary," and a promise to suspend the transfer of prisoners to Yemen because of the "unsettled" situation in that country, accompanied by an emphatic recommitment to closing Guantanamo.
What the gaffes, the almost comically strained avoidance of such direct terms as "war" and "Islamist terrorism," and the failure to think of Abdulmutallab as a potential source of intelligence rather than simply as a criminal defendant seem to reflect is that some in the executive branch are focused more on not sounding like their predecessors than they are on finding and neutralizing people who believe it is their religious duty to kill us. That's too bad, because the Constitution vests "the executive power"—not some of it, all of it—in the president. He, and those acting at his direction, are responsible for protecting us.
There is much to worry about if they think that the principal challenge of the day is detecting bombs at the airport rather than actively searching out, finding and neutralizing terrorists before they get there.
Mr. Mukasey was attorney general of the United States from 2007 to 2009.