Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Opinion: Intelligence community must be part of terror decisions

By Gloria Borger, CNN Senior Political Analyst
  • Gloria Borger says GOP Sen. Susan Collins is not someone prone to hyperbole
  • She says Collins is worried about how Christmas Day bomber was treated
  • Miranda rights read, lawyer given without consulting intelligence community, she says
  • All intelligence agencies need to be in the loop, Borger says

Editor's note: Gloria Borger is a senior political analyst for CNN, appearing regularly on CNN's "The Situation Room," "Campbell Brown," "AC360°" and "State of the Union," as well as participating in special event coverage.

Washington (CNN) -- Sen. Susan Collins is not prone to hyperbole. She's a moderate Republican who survived the Obama sweep in the last election by winning handily in Maine as an independent thinker. She's not doctrinaire. In fact, she abandoned most of her GOP caucus to support the administration on the controversial stimulus package. And she's an important player, as the ranking Republican on the Homeland Security Committee.

Lately, she's been (uncharacteristically) sounding alarms. She complained last week that the administration treated the Christmas Day bomber as an "ordinary criminal" rather than a terrorist when officials decided to eventually hand him a lawyer some time after his arrest. And now, she's even more concerned. "I am frustrated about it," she told me. "It was such a dangerous decision. It really worries me."

Why the additional angst? Because intelligence officials told a Senate panel this week that al Qaeda and its subsidiaries were actively plotting a new attack against the United States within the next six months. If that's the case, she tells me, we need to get our act together. And fast.

Since the September 11, 2001, attacks, national security has been a domestic policy issue. And since the Christmas Day bombing attempt, it's become a matter of domestic politics. Consider this: The public is now against closing the Guantanamo Bay detention center, with 56 percent of Americans disapproving, according to a recent Washington Post-ABC poll.

And when asked by CNN whether alleged Christmas Day bomber Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab should be tried in a military or civilian court, Americans -- by a margin of 57-42 -- want him tried in a military court run by the U.S. armed services. So the idea of reading him his Miranda rights and handing him a lawyer is, shall we say, controversial.

The administration, clearly sensing the political heat, has decided to take the matter on frontally. Attorney General Eric Holder sent a letter to Capitol Hill on Wednesday saying that a) he had acted within precedent (set by the Bush administration, of all things, without objection from Republicans) and that b) everyone was informed about what he was doing, and no one objected. Case closed.

Not so fast, says Collins. "Informing someone is different from consulting. The idea that Miranda rights were accorded to this terrorist without consulting the intelligence community is outrageous." And, she says, when she asked the leaders of the intelligence community point-blank at a January 20 hearing about whether they had been consulted, each one said "no."

But if you listen to the White House, the intelligence community was a part of the process. "People had an opportunity to express themselves on this," one senior administration official tells me. So does that simply mean that no one objected, or were they active participants providing intelligence before any decision was made by Holder?

In any case, the White House is now pointedly arguing that the intelligence community is currently getting more information from AbdulMutallab than it would have any other way. They say AbdulMutallab started speaking to agents last week in Detroit, Michigan, and has been singing ever since. The cooperation came, they said, precisely because the young man's relatives have been a part of the process to get him to talk. The clear message: Our way worked.

In fact, one senior Obama official told CNN's Ed Henry that gaining the trust of the family was the best way to handle the case, and is paying off with valuable intelligence that "could be used to disrupt other attacks."

Collins still isn't happy. "Six weeks have been lost," she says, weeks in which al Qaeda could change its timelines and methods.

And, by the way, she asks, are we offering this man anything in return for his cooperation? The White House says no, although the Justice Department will take his cooperation "into consideration." Hmmmm.

Whatever happens to AbdulMutallab, however, pales in comparison to the issue of how we handle the next batch of terrorist suspects, which we are assured do exist. And here's what Collins wants: Include intelligence officials in the active conversation at the outset -- no matter what the final conclusion.

"There should have been consultations with intelligence officials before the Justice Department decided to treat him as an ordinary citizen," she says. "The CIA was informed after the fact, and not consulted. ... The agents on the ground had no idea what information intelligence agencies had about him. In the decision-making process about how to handle him, wouldn't you have wanted to hear from the CIA, the director of national intelligence and the National Counterterrorism Center?"

As a result, she says, "We will never know whether the quality and the quantity of the information would have been better if we had gotten it sooner and he didn't have a lawyer sitting there and guiding him."

But what we do know for certain is that all intelligence agencies need to be in the loop. In the end, even if the decision had been the same, the deliberations would have been different. Ask anyone in the intelligence community if they would have been better.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gloria Borger.