GOP makes Christmas bomber lose-lose for Obama

Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., says the administration helped terrorists as it defended itself from Republican criticism


Alex Koppelman
February 5, 2010 2:28AM (UTC)

Fans of "Calvin and Hobbes" may remember "Calvinball," the much-loved game that was sometimes featured in the comic strip. Long story short, the rules to "Calvinball" are constantly changing, and nearly always unknown -- which makes it easy for Calvin to suddenly announce a rule change that helps him. Sometimes, politics is a lot like that.

The right has been getting a lot of mileage lately out of its criticism of the way the Obama administration handled the arrest and interrogation of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the man who allegedly tried to blow up a Northwest plane as it neared Detroit on Christmas Day. They've done this despite copious evidence that Abdulmutallab wouldn't have been treated any differently under the Bush administration, or at least that people in similar situations -- like shoe bomber Richard Reid -- were treated the same way Abdulmutallab was.

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Little details like that haven't stopped the critics, especially as they've focused on the fact that Abdulmutallab was read his Miranda rights and allegedly stopped cooperating immediately afterwards. (In fact, Abdulmutallab was reportedly only Mirandized after he'd stopped talking.)

The White House has been fighting back, though, and as part of that effort, on Tuesday administration officials told reporters that Abdulmutallab has begun cooperating again. Methods softer than those the right would prefer were employed: Rather than waterboarding him, authorities brought some of Abdulmutallab's family to the U.S. and allowed him to see them.

Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., the ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, wasn't happy about that public disclosure. In a scathing letter to President Obama, Bond wrote, "This information immediately hit the air waves globally and, no doubt, reached the ears of our enemies abroad." He added that the news "has no doubt been helpful to his terrorist cohorts around the world" and said, "Consider the consequences of publicly disseminating sensitive information vital to the defense of the American people. I do not believe the American people want this information jeopardized to further political arguments."

Bond does have one legitimate point in that he says members of Congress briefed on Abdulmutallab's cooperation were initially told that it was important that fact a secret. But the information essentially came out anyway during Senate hearings this week, and that led to the administration's decision to brief reporters.

Moreover, Bond has to know that he and his fellow Republicans aren't blameless here. They can't seriously expect to be able to take potshots at the administration's handling of terror cases without prompting some sort of response -- once you've started politicizing the issue, it's hard to call for that politicization to stop. If the GOP's worried about the consequences of that, it might want to take a hard look at its criticism of the way Obama's handling terrorism and decide what are actually legitimate points that need to be raised and what's just political grandstanding; all too often, it seems, the focus is much more on the latter.

Update: At his briefing on Thursday, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs called on Bond to apologize, saying, "The notion that somehow the White House, in conjunction with agencies involved in this interrogation, gave out classified information? I think an apology on that is owed, because it's not true."

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Bond wasn't having any of it, saying in a statement, "After telling me to keep my mouth shut, the White House discloses sensitive information in an effort to defend a dangerous and unpopular decision to Mirandize Abdulmutallab and I’m supposed to apologize?"

Separately, on his blog, Andrew Sullivan's posted a letter from a reader who argues that Reid and Abdulmutallab shouldn't have been Mirandized because it simply wasn't necessary in their cases. We can debate procedure, but the letter's worth reading if only because it's a good, succinct explanation of the way Miranda works.

What a lot of people don't understand -- certainly what gets missed when people like Rush Limbaugh start worrying about hypothetically reading Osama bin Laden his rights -- is that the right at issue is about self-incrimination. In short, if you've already given the goverment all it needs to convict you by, say, trying to blow yourself up in front of a plane full of witnesses, then the police can talk to you indefinitely without ever Mirandizing you; they just can't use what you say during that interrogation against you in court. They can, however, still use it to investigate others, and potentially to prosecute them, though that depends on other circumstances as well.


Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

MORE FROM Alex Koppelman

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Terrorism Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab War Room




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