Holder made call on how to handle jet-bomb suspect
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WASHINGTON -- In his first public defense of the arrest of the would-be Christmas Day jetliner bomber, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said Wednesday that he personally made the decision to prosecute Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and that no one in the Washington intelligence community raised an objection that the al-Qaida operative should instead be turned over to military interrogators as a prisoner of war.
Mr. Holder also strongly applauded the work of FBI agents in Detroit, specifically those who spoke with the young Nigerian and have since been sharply criticized for reading him his Miranda rights against self-incrimination. The suspect initially stopped talking but, since then -- after meeting with his family while in custody -- has begun to cooperate again.
Mr. Holder and the Justice Department declined to discuss whether the discussions may lead to a plea bargain for the operative, trained under the al-Qaida branch in Yemen. A senior law enforcement official said the relatives came to this country because "they had faith in the U.S. justice system" and that, with their assistance, they helped the FBI "gain his cooperation."
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Wednesday that while "Abdulmutallab has not been offered anything, the Department of Justice [would] take his cooperation into consideration."
Mr. Holder, in a five-page response to the Senate Republican leadership that has been demanding his testimony on Capitol Hill, took personal responsibility for deciding to prosecute Mr. Abdulmutallab.
"I made the decision to charge Mr. Abdulmutallab with federal crimes, and to seek his detention in connection with those charges, with the knowledge of, and with no objection from, all other relevant departments of the government," he said.
Mr. Holder did not say in his response who approved the decision to read Mr. Abdulmutallab his Miranda rights against self-incrimination. But FBI Director Robert S. Mueller said Tuesday that it was a joint decision by the FBI counterterrorism division and federal prosecutors.
Republicans, who have been highly critical of the decision to arrest and to "Mirandize" Mr. Abdulmutallab, rather than to declare him an enemy combatant to be tried by a military tribunal, said they were dissatisfied with Mr. Holder's response and continued to press him to testify on Capitol Hill.
On Christmas night and into the morning of the following day, "the FBI informed its partners in the Intelligence community that Abdulmutallab would be charged criminally, and no agency objected to this course of action," the attorney general said.
In the following days, including during a Jan. 5 meeting with President Barack Obama and senior members of his national security team, "high-level discussions ensued within the administration in which the possibility of detaining Mr. Abdulmutallab under the law of war was explicitly discussed."
Under the law of war, there could have been a decision to stop the federal prosecution of Mr. Abdulmutallab and have the president declare him an enemy combatant.
At that point, he would have been taken to the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, or some other location and subjected to military interrogations and a possible trial by a military tribunal.
But Mr. Holder said, "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."
That position appears to contradict remarks from some in the intelligence field, including Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair, who told the Senate Homeland Security Committee that it was a "mistake" for agents to give Mr. Abdulmutallab a Miranda warning that he has a right to an attorney and that his words could be used against him.
In addition, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., the Senate Judiciary Committee's senior Republican, insisted that military custody was the proper place for Mr. Abdulmutallab to truly find out everything he knows about al-Qaida plots, especially since the Senate Intelligence Committee was advised Tuesday that terrorists are planning by July a large-scale attack on U.S. soil.
"Treating terrorists like civilians damages our ability to gather crucial intelligence," Mr. Sessions said.
But Mr. Holder said the agents in Detroit were simply following the law and their own procedures in reading Miranda rights to Mr. Abdulmutallab, especially as a suspect arrested in this country.
First Published February 4, 2010 12:00 am