U.S. may be passing up chances to stop terrorist plots

By Marc A. Thiessen
Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Did a captured Taliban leader know about the Times Square plot and withhold this information from his interrogators?

On Sunday, Obama administration officials, including counterterrorism chief John Brennan, declared that the Taliban was behind the attack and that Faisal Shahzad, the Times Square bomber, had "extensive interactions" with Taliban leaders in Pakistan. Yet just a few months before Shahzad attempted to blow up a car bomb in the heart of Manhattan, U.S. and Pakistani officials captured the highest-ranking Taliban leader ever detained in the war on terror -- Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. This raises a critical question: Could Baradar have warned us about the Times Square attack?

Baradar was detained in Karachi, Pakistan, in late January -- the same city where several of Shahzad's associates were just detained. Shahzad left Pakistan on Feb. 3, just days after Baradar's capture, which means he was meeting with Taliban officials while Baradar was still at large. Why did Shahzad flee right after Baradar was taken into custody?

Baradar is second only to Mullah Omar in the Taliban hierarchy. Newsweek described him as "arguably the most important terrorist suspect captured since the detention of Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed in spring of 2003." But unlike KSM, Baradar has not been taken into American custody for interrogation by the CIA. Instead, he has been held and questioned by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency.

Allowing the ISI to control his questioning is far from ideal. Indeed, the Los Angeles Times has reported that the CIA became extremely frustrated with the ISI's handling of Baradar's interrogation: "The CIA was denied direct access to Baradar for about two weeks after his arrest, and has since worked alongside Pakistani interrogators who continue to control the questioning. But officials said they have learned nothing from Baradar that could be used to track down other Taliban leaders, or inform the planning of U.S. military operations." The failure to properly exploit Baradar prompted the CIA to push for his transfer to a U.S.-run prison in Afghanistan -- a request that was apparently denied.

Another report in this week's New York Times indicates that Baradar is running the show in his interrogation. Only in the past several weeks have American officials finally been given regular, direct contact with Baradar. He has now reportedly begun providing information on the "the inner workings of the Taliban" but still "is not revealing details of Taliban combat operations, yielding little that American commanders would like to know as they prepare for a military operation around Kandahar." Translation: Baradar is the one deciding what information he will share and what he will withhold.

It would be a different story in a CIA black site. But President Obama shut down the CIA's black sites and dismantled the agency's interrogation program. In its place, he created something called the High-Value Interrogation Group (HIG) -- a less controversial alternative for questioning senior terrorist leaders like Baradar and KSM. Yet according to multiple media accounts, the HIG has not been deployed to participate in Baradar's interrogation. Why not? While the HIG is not authorized to use even the most mild enhanced interrogation techniques that could compel Baradar's cooperation, it was purportedly created for just such a circumstance. If the HIG is not going to being used to question the highest-ranking Taliban leader ever taken into custody, who exactly is it going to interrogate?

Baradar is a leader of the Afghan Taliban, but U.S. intelligence officials report there is increasing overlap and coordination among the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda. Brennan says the groups are now "almost indistinguishable." The leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Hakimullah Mehsud , recently warned: "Our fighters are already in the United States" and pledged to "attack . . . the American cities." Baradar may know a great deal about the Taliban's plans for such attacks.

Is the United States doing everything in its power to obtain all the information Baradar possesses -- as it did in the case of Khalid Sheik Mohammed? The answer apparently is no -- and Obama officials may come to regret that. In an interview for my book, "Courting Disaster," former national security adviser Steve Hadley recalled sitting before the Sept. 11 commission: "It is a very searing experience when people look at you and effectively ask, 'How is it that you could have failed your country, and why didn't you do everything you could to defend this nation?' " He continued, "If there had been some other attack, and KSM came forward, as he would have, and said, 'Yeah, I planned that attack,' how comfortable would you be explaining to the Sept. 11 commission why you hadn't waterboarded?"

In the past four months we have had two terrorist attacks that failed only because the bomb malfunctioned. If the next bomb does go off, how comfortable will President Obama and his national security team be sitting before the next Sept. 11 commission and answering the question: "How is it that you failed your country, and why didn't you do everything you could to defend this nation?"

Marc A. Thiessen, a visiting fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of the book "Courting Disaster." He writes a weekly column for The Post.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company