WASHINGTON — The real scandal surrounding the failed Christmas Day airline bombing was not the fact that a terrorist got on a plane — that can happen to any administration, as it surely did to the Bush administration — but what happened afterward when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was captured and came under the full control of the U.S. government.
After 50 minutes of questioning him, the Obama administration chose, reflexively and mindlessly, to give the chatty terrorist the right to remain silent. Which he immediately did, undoubtedly denying us crucial information about al-Qaida in Yemen, which had trained, armed and dispatched him.
We have since learned that the decision to Mirandize Abdulmutallab had been made without the knowledge of or consultation with (1) the secretary of defense, (2) the secretary of homeland security, (3) the director of the FBI, (4) the director of the National Counterterrorism Center or (5) the director of national intelligence.
The Justice Department acted not just unilaterally but unaccountably. Obama's own DNI said that Abdulmutallab should have been interrogated by the HIG, the administration's new High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group.
Perhaps you hadn't heard the term. Well, in the very first week of his presidency, Obama abolished by executive order the Bush-Cheney interrogation procedures and pledged to study a substitute mechanism. In August, the administration announced the establishment of the HIG, housed in the FBI but overseen by the National Security Council.
Where was it during the Abdulmutallab case? Not available, admitted National Intelligence director Dennis Blair, because it had only been conceived for use abroad. Had not one person in this vast administration of highly nuanced sophisticates considered the possibility of a terror attack on American soil?
It gets worse. Blair later had to explain that the HIG was not deployed because it does not yet exist. After a year! I suppose this administration was so busy deploying scores of the country's best lawyerly minds on finding the most rapid way to release Gitmo miscreants that it could not be bothered to establish a single operational HIG team to interrogate at-large miscreants with actionable intelligence that might save American lives.
Travesties of this magnitude are not lost on the American people. One of the reasons Scott Brown won in Massachusetts was his focus on the Mirandizing of Abdulmutallab.
Of course, this case is just a reflection of a larger problem: an administration that insists on treating Islamist terrorism as a law enforcement issue. Which is why the Justice Department's other egregious terror decision, granting Khalid Sheik Mohammed a civilian trial in New York, is now the subject of a letter from six senators — three Republicans, two Democrats and Joe Lieberman — asking Attorney General Eric Holder to reverse the decision.
Lieberman and Sen. Susan Collins had written an earlier letter asking for Abdulmutallab to be turned over to the military for renewed interrogation. The problem is, it's hard to see how that decision gets reversed. Once you've read a man Miranda rights, what do you say? We are idiots? On second thought …
Hence the agitation over the KSM trial. This one can be reversed and it's a good surrogate for this administration's insistence upon criminalizing — and therefore trivializing — a war on terror that has now struck three times in one year within the United States, twice with effect (the Arkansas killer and the Fort Hood shooter) and once with a shockingly near miss (Abdulmutallab).
On the KSM civilian trial, sentiment is widespread that it is quite insane to spend $200 million a year to give the killer of 3,000 innocents the largest propaganda platform on Earth, while at the same time granting civilian rights of cross-examination and discovery that risk betraying U.S. intelligence sources and methods.
Accordingly, Sen. Lindsey Graham and Rep. Frank Wolf have gone beyond appeals to the administration and are planning to introduce a bill to block funding for the trial. It's an important measure. It makes flesh an otherwise abstract issue — should terrorists be treated as enemy combatants or criminal defendants? The vote will force members of Congress to declare themselves. There will be no hiding from the question.
Congress may not be able to roll back the Abdulmutallab travesty. But there will be future Abdulmutallabs. By cutting off funding for the KSM trial, Congress can send Obama a clear message: The Constitution is neither a safety net for illegal enemy combatants nor a suicide pact for us.
Charles Krauthammer's e-mail address is letters@ charleskrauthammer.com.