Paul Greenberg

It wasn't just that the whole national security system -- you know, the one the secretary of Homeland Security said had worked -- didn't.

As it turned out, the whole elaborate apparatus was unable to keep a clear and ticking danger off an American airliner Christmas Day -- despite an abundance of warning signs.

That wasn't just the conclusion of the opposition, but of the president.

It took him days to say so, but he did admit it, finally speaking of a "systemic" failure, as if it were the system's fault rather than that of those he had placed in charge of it.

It was hard to avoid the impression at the time that not only was the commander-in-chief on vacation but his whole security team.

It was what happened afterward that troubles now. After being interviewed by the FBI, the suspect wasn't turned over to the military or even the special intelligence unit supposed to handle such cases -- the HIG, or High-Value Interrogation Group.

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After being subdued by the passengers on the flight, the suspect wasn't treated as an unlawful enemy combatant and promptly dispatched to a secure military post, where experts adept at this sort of thing could interrogate him at length under conditions designed to garner every bit of useful intelligence from him.

Instead, our unwelcome guest was turned over to the criminal justice system -- with all rights, privileges and delays appertaining thereto.

Naturally, once given his Miranda warning and benefit of counsel, he clammed shut.

Dennis Blair, our national intelligence director, admitted this additional failure of the system when he testified before the Senate's committee on homeland security. The HIG, he told the committee, "was created explicitly for this purpose," but "we did not invoke the HIG in this case. We should have. Frankly, we were thinking more of overseas people and, duh, you know, we didn't (use) it here."

Well, duh, yes. Memo to the admiral: This is a global war on terror even if the administration now refuses to use that term. Which may be a large part of the problem. Language matters. Vague language leads to vague policies, with enough holes in it for a terrorist trained by al-Qaida to slip into the criminal justice system instead of being treated as the enemy combatant he is.

It took Admiral Blair's office several hours to post a notice on its Web site saying the suspect had been interviewed by FBI agents, and had revealed "important intelligence at that time...."

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.