The FBI has mixed views of the Obama administration, according to candid assessments of Arthur M. “Art” Cummings II, who headed FBI counterterrorism and counterintelligence investigations until last year.
For my new book “The Secrets of the FBI,” Cummings told me that after announcing its decision to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in New York City, the Justice Department asked Cummings to prepare an assessment of the security threat that such a trial would pose there.
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Cummings resisted. He figured such an assessment from the FBI would be used for political purposes by both Democrats and Republicans. In any case, he never thought the New York idea, which he believed was irresponsible, would ever be carried out.
The effort by Obama administration officials to publicly use euphemisms such as “man-caused disasters” to refer to terrorism or to avoid the terms “Islamists” or “jihadists” in describing the enemy galled Cummings.
“Terrible, terrible” is the way Cummings described those ideas. “Of course Islamists dominate the terrorism of today,” he says. Besides hunting down al-Qaida, Cummings had to contend with bureaucratic rivalries. The Department of Homeland Security could not manage its own immigration responsibilities yet tried to become involved in a range of counterterrorism decisions that were the purview of the FBI, Cummings says.
Janet Napolitano, secretary of Homeland Security, maintained that her department should have a “vote” on whether or not to Mirandize a suspect, Cummings says. “It’s the insanity of Washington when representatives of Homeland Security believe they might have a say in whether or not the FBI Mirandizes or doesn’t Mirandize somebody,” Cummings says. “They should not be getting involved in tactical CT [counterterrorism] operational decisions.”
Another agency, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), often got in the way and produced little of value to the bureau, he says.
While the 9/11 commission originally envisioned the office as having several hundred employees to coordinate the intelligence community, the staff has ballooned to 1,500. A small segment of those employees work for the National Counterterrorism Center, which is vital, but the rest of ODNI produces little that Cummings could see to enhance the intelligence effort.
That point was symbolized when Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. admitted in a December 2010 interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer that he was unaware of the arrests of 12 terrorists in London. It had been all over the news for most of the day. Cummings regarded Clapper as by far the most qualified DNI to have held the post. But the embarrassing lapse spotlighted the folly of creating a bureaucracy on top of operational agencies already on the alert for terror threats.
On the other hand, Cummings has no problem with the policy of both the Obama and Bush administrations that FBI agents read terrorists their rights. He believes that in most cases, the FBI can obtain the intelligence it needs to stop future plots by remaining within the framework of the legal system, including by administering Miranda warnings. The trick is to confront suspects before they are in custody, give them incentives to talk, and establish rapport.
In a rare exception, because he had to be arrested on the spot, that did not happen with Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who attempted to blow up a Northwest Airlines plane on Christmas Day of 2009. The 23-year-old suspect talked freely at first.
“In the first hour, he gave us really good information on the front end,” Cummings says. “‘Yep, I did this on behalf of al-Qaida. Yep, it was in Yemen.’” He gave up names, places, training camps. Then he was transported to the University of Michigan Medical Center for a medical procedure. After that, he started to clam up.
“He was under the influence of painkillers, and they’d scrubbed the skin to remove the burnt skin,” Cummings says. As the narcotics wore off, two new agents went in to see him. They were instructed to deal with conditions on the ground as they saw them.
The agents saw the Nigerian the day after his arrest. He was praying. They began by asking elementary questions he had already answered. “He either lied or didn’t give them the answer,” Cummings says. “And at that point, they were like, he’s done. So then they gave him Miranda.”
Over the next five weeks, the FBI worked on him. The focus was on finding out what he cared about. “Is it his mother, is it his family, is it his future?” Cummings says. “Is it shame upon his family? We offer them the possibility that instead of dying in an American prison, maybe sometime in their lifetime they will actually be able to go home and see their family, and they won’t be executed and die at the hands of this nation they hate so much.”
Cummings sent two agents to Nigeria to learn everything they could about Abdulmutallab’s background and family. “They engaged his family and explained this is really, really serious, and it's in the best interest of your son that we cut a deal of some sort,” Cummings says.
One agent moved in with Abdulmutallab’s uncle, then flew him to Detroit. Later, his father flew to Detroit as well. Both told Abdulmutallab it was in his interest to listen to the agent.
Five weeks after he had stopped talking, Abdulmutallab was cooperating again.
“The intelligence community operators are doing a good job,” Cummings, who was the FBI’s executive assistant director, told me. “It’s the massive bureaucracy around them that slows things down and frustrates the effort. You have this big planning machine generating endless meetings. We would walk out of the meetings shaking our heads.”
Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com. He is a New York Times best-selling author of books on the Secret Service, FBI, and CIA. His latest, "The Secrets of the FBI," has just been published. View his previous reports and get his dispatches sent to you free via email. Go Here Now.
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