AG defends decision to arrest Christmas Day terror suspect

Holder says move was consistent with past practice

By Pete Yost
Associated Press / February 4, 2010

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WASHINGTON - Attorney General Eric Holder said yesterday that he made the decision to charge the Christmas Day terror suspect in civilian court rather than the military system, with no objection from the other relevant departments of the government.

In a letter to Mitch McConnell, Senate Republican leader, the attorney general wrote that the FBI told its partners in the intelligence community on Christmas Day and again the next day that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab would be charged criminally.

Holder’s letter was the latest volley in a vigorous counterattack by the Obama administration to Republican allegations that the arrest and FBI interrogation of the Detroit suspect was a mistake that cost a chance to learn key information.

The letter followed less than 24 hours after senior administration officials disclosed that the suspect had resumed talking to US interrogators last week after breaking off his discussions the day of his arrest.

Abdulmutallab has discussed his contacts in Yemen and provided intelligence in multiple investigations, officials say.

Holder said the possibility of detaining Abdulmutallab in the US military system under the law of war was explicitly discussed in the days following the arrest, including at a Jan. 5 meeting that included President Obama and senior members of the national security team.

“No agency supported the use of law of war detention for Abdulmutallab, and no agency has since advised the Department of Justice that an alternative course of action should have been, or should now be, pursued,’’ the attorney general wrote.

Holder said his decision was consistent with earlier practices followed in both the Obama and Bush administrations.

“The Bush administration used the criminal justice system to convict more than 300 individuals on terrorism-related charges,’’ Holder wrote. The attorney general mentioned the case of Richard Reid, who tried but failed to ignite a shoe bomb on a US-bound jetliner.

“The practice of the US government followed by prior and current administrations without a single exception has been to arrest and detain under federal criminal law all terrorist suspects who are apprehended inside the United States,’’ Holder added.

Holder defended the decision to read Abdulmutallab his Miranda rights, which has been a focus of the Republican criticism.

Robert S. Mueller III, the FBI director, testified Tuesday that agents questioned Abdulmutallab until he entered surgery and that the suspect was not advised of his right to remain silent until after the medical procedure. A federal law enforcement official, requesting anonymity to discuss an ongoing case, said the suspect made clear after surgery that he was going to stop talking and then was given his Miranda warning.

“Neither advising Abdulmutallab of his Miranda rights nor granting him access to counsel prevents us from obtaining intelligence from him,’’ wrote Holder. “On the contrary, history shows that the federal justice system is an extremely effective tool for gathering intelligence.’’

Republican critics have argued that Abdulmutallab could have been declared an enemy combatant and held indefinitely without providing him access to an attorney.

“The government’s legal authority to do so is far from clear,’’ Holder wrote. He cited a ruling by his Republican predecessor as attorney general, Michael Mukasey, while he was a federal judge, that the Bush administration could not prevent an enemy combatant, Jose Padilla, from speaking to an attorney while he was in military custody.

The attorney general also said the course proposed by the Republicans wasn’t feasible.

“There is no court-approved system currently in place in which suspected terrorists captured inside the United States can be detained and held without access to an attorney, nor is there any known mechanism to persuade an uncooperative individual to talk to the government that has been proven more effective than the criminal justice system,’’ Holder wrote.

Holder’s letter went to McConnell and 10 other Republican senators who had questioned the decision on charging Abdulmutallab.

Meantime, after weeks of criticizing what they believed was a failure to get more intelligence from Abdulmutallab, Republican members of the House Intelligence Committee opened a new line of attack yesterday. They criticized as a political maneuver the Tuesday briefing by a senior administration official that revealed some details about the success in persuading Abdulmutallab to resume talking. The official disclosed that the FBI brought members of the suspect’s family to this country to help persuade him to cooperate again.