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January 6, 2007
A Terrorist Catch-And-Release Program? (Update: CNN Forgot Something!)

NOTE: CNN left something out of this report. See update below.

Yesterday, a Republican Congresswoman alleged that the American military in Iraq had most of its high-value enemy targets in detention at one point or another, but released them without properly identifying them:

The U.S. military already knows what half of its most-wanted terrorist targets look like because they have been apprehended and photographed in the past, a Republican congresswoman said Friday.

The United States is operating "a catch and release program for al Qaeda in Iraq," said Rep. Heather Wilson, a member of the House intelligence committee.

In remarks at the National Press Club, the New Mexico lawmaker said a senior official told her that the U.S. military already has photographs of "fully half of the high-value al Qaeda targets in Iraq" presently being hunted.

"They're wearing orange jumpsuits in the mugshots we took of them when we captured them the first time," Wilson recalled the official telling her.

"We are operating a catch and release program for al Qaeda in Iraq. This is inexcusable and frustrating ... for the young men and women in the military who are in the fight," she added.

Without more details than those in Wilson's statement, it's difficult to understand the problem. Did the Coalition know that these men were high-ranking terrorists when they were released? That seems highly unlikely. I would assume that the Coalition did not know the true identity of the detainees when they had them in custody and that their release was a mistake. It's doubtful that the Iraqis have a reliable system of identification, even one during the Saddam era, and with the influx of foreign insurgents it got exponentially worse.

Even so, it shows that the learning curve still exists in Iraq. Again, without any details from Wilson, it's difficult to know when the releases occurred, but one would assume they came earlier in the mission. (If we know they'ret terrorists now, I'd hope we wouldn't still be releasing them.) Intelligence takes time to develop, and identities of masterminds are deliberately kept murky behind a shifting facade of Abu-fillintheblanks in that region.

The only solution to that problem is continued engagement. The longer we work in the area and be seen as tenacious and committed, the better the intel gets. If we pull out and only come back in a crisis, we will have lost all of those paths for intel and will not have time to re-establish them. If we're serious about neutralizing terrorists, that's what it takes. Otherwise, even if we're fortunate to scoop a few people up in lightning raids, we will have no idea who we have -- and we'll go back to the catch-and-release program that Wilson decried yesterday.

UPDATE: CQ reader Jim sent me a link to a different report of this same speech -- and it's clear that Wilson was not criticizing the military for this problem (emphases mine):

New Mexico Congresswoman Heather Wilson says frustrated U.S. officials in Iraq feel like they’re operating a catch-and-release program for al-Qaida. Wilson, who was in Iraq last week, says that’s because Iraqi courts fail to keep suspects in jail. ...

She says that although half those sought have been caught before, the system also is putting people away. However, she adds: “I just don’t want to do it twice or three times.”

Now, why would CNN leave that part out of their own report? Instead of accurately reporting her criticism of the Iraqi courts, CNN instead depicted it as an attack on the military in Iraq. This shows how those layers of checks at mainstream media outlets can twist stories and quotes into meanings far from reality. Ironically, it's the AP report that got it right.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at January 6, 2007 9:23 AM

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