Which is it now -- imminent terrorist threat, or no threat? Certain or uncertain?
Only last month U.S. intelligence officials were saying the Nigerian underwear bomber slipped through their nets because they didn't think al Qaeda could or would mount another attack here.
Yesterday, they warned that a terror attack here was "certain."
Meantime, we hear that the Miranda warning that FBI interrogators gave Umar Farouk Abdulmutullab caused the Nigerian to clam up.
But yesterday, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III said he was singing like the proverbial bird.
Moreover, in "case after case," terrorists have provided actionable intelligence even after they were given their rights and charged with crimes, Mueller said.
If that weren't enough, officials continue to contradict each other on who's in charge of interrogating Abdulmutallab and other top-of-the-ticket terrorist suspects.
Mueller testified Tuesday that a new FBI-CIA interrogation team created in August to replace controversial CIA interrogations had been used several times already.
That statement only added to confusion over the status of the so-called High-Value Interrogation Group, or HIG, which the White House unveiled last summer in the wake of controversy over waterboarding and other "enhanced interrogation techniques" inflicted on captured terrorist suspects after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
Only a few weeks ago the Director of National Intelligence, Adm. Dennis Blair, said the HIG should have been used to question Abdulmutallab. Hours later he had to "clarify" his remarks to say that the teams were not used because they were not yet fully operational.
Yesterday, anonymous intelligence officials split the difference, telling the Associated Press that the HIG "is not yet fully formed but ... joint interrogation teams are available for use."
Back to the looming terrorist attack:
"An attempted attack, the priority is certain, I would say," Blair said, sounding more like Confucius than the nominal chief of U.S. intelligence.
CIA chief Panetta, likewise, sounded a certain note of uncertainty.
"The biggest threat is not so much that we face an attack like 9/11," he told the Senate Intelligence Committee. "It is that Al Qaeda is adapting its methods in ways that oftentimes make it difficult to detect."
Translation: They're out there somewhere. . .
Not to worry, though. After U.S. intelligence dropped the ball on the underwear bomber -- failing to follow the dots between Abdulmutallab's father's warning that his son was up to no good and intercepted terrrorist calls about "a Nigerian" being dispatched from Yemen to the U.S. -- DNI Blair announced he was setting up new teams to follow up on clues to imminent attacks.
Gee, what a good idea.
"It's so very fundamental and very basic that you'd think it would immediately have been an urgent matter," said Lee H. Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana who was co-chairman of the commission on the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Much more of this, and U.S. intelligence officials risk the kind of ridicule and contempt they earned during the Bush years, when the Homeland Security Department's blinking red and yellow warning lights left most Americans dazed and cynical.
Only slightly more dispiriting than the testimony of Blair and Panetta was the clownish performance of senators supposedly overseeing their work.
"At times, the senators seemed more interested in debating one another than in hearing testimony from witnesses," the New York Times's Mark Mazzetti observed.
"Midway through the hearing, partisan bickering broke out about whether terrorist suspects ought to be tried in civilian courts and whether the man charged as the Dec. 25 bomber should have been given Miranda rights that could protect him against self-incrimination."
Missing in all the clamor: Terrorists don't need Miranda warnings to stop talking. They can do that all by themselves.
Speaking of which, thanks to skilled FBI agents far from the hearing room, Abdulmutallab now can't stop talking, according to reports.
They flew in his momma.
Follow Jeff Stein on Twitter: www.twitter.com/spytalker