Interrogating Umar Patek


In October 2002, a terror group called Jemaah Islamiyah, which is strongly affiliated with al-Qaeda, detonated a car bomb outside a nightclub on the tourist-heavy island of Bali.  It was Indonesia’s worst terror attack, and one of the worst to come from the al-Qaeda network in the wake of 9/11.  202 people were killed, including seven Americans.

One of the perpetrators of this attack, Umar Patek, was recently captured in Pakistan, using information provided by the CIA.  He fled Indonesia after some of Jemaah Islamiyah’s top figures were captured, and was whiling away the hours in Pakistan by running a terrorist training camp.

Patek is one of the world’s most wanted terrorists.  The United States had a million-dollar bounty on his head.  (Since it was CIA intelligence that nailed him, I guess we can count that million dollars as a “spending cut” now.)  Writing in the Washington Post, Marc Thiessen of the American Enterprise Institute calls him “the highest-ranking terrorist to be captured alive since Barack Obama took office” and “a potential gold mine of information.” 

Patek worked with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to plan a “second wave” of attacks on America after 9/11.  Not only was he running a boot camp for scumbags, but he stopped off in Yemen on his way to Pakistan, and he was apparently planning to meet with top al-Qaeda leaders.  He took a lot of risks moving around like that, with his name atop the list of most-wanted terrorists.  Learning what compelled him to take those risks could provide vital national security intelligence.

Thiessen writes, “A former U.S. senior intelligence official told me that [Patek] is precisely the kind of high-value terrorist who would have been taken into CIA custody for questioning during the Bush administration.”  But George Bush is gone, and his successor doesn’t do “interrogations.”  We got rid of all those unsightly “secret CIA prisons,” and we have no policy in place to deal with someone like Patek.  As former CIA officer Phil Mud told Fox News, “there were a lot of inquiries into CIA black sites, so the CIA got out of the business of holding detainees.”  It’s as if the Obama Administration just assumed it would never catch a high value target. 

The usual clubfooted political fumble is under way in Washington, with lots of “no comment” demurrals coming from people who get paid to comment.  The Pakistani government has said it will deliver Umar Patek directly to Indonesia for trial, and “there is no plan to hand him over to the Americans.”  If the President doesn’t insist on access to him, and finish discarding the dangerously childish liberal ideology that led him to spend a mad year trying to put Patek’s comrade Kahlid Sheikh Muhammad on trial in New York City, valuable real-time intelligence about al-Qaeda leadership will slip away.

The worst thing about those “ticking bomb” scenarios that come up during debates over interrogation policy is that, in the real world, you never really know if the bomb is ticking.