Obama aide defends trial for suspect in Christmas Day attempt to bomb plane

The United States closed its embassy in Sanaa, Yemen, on Sunday because of what it said was a threat from the group al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Britain also closed its embassy in Yemen's capital.
The United States closed its embassy in Sanaa, Yemen, on Sunday because of what it said was a threat from the group al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Britain also closed its embassy in Yemen's capital. (AP)
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By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 4, 2010

President Obama's chief counterterrorism adviser on Sunday defended the administration's decision to try in federal court the man charged with attempting to bomb an airliner on Christmas Day and indicated that he would be offered a plea agreement to persuade him to reveal what he knows about al-Qaeda operations in Yemen.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 23-year-old Nigerian charged with the failed attempt on the Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight, was initially "talking to people who detained him" but now has a public defender and "doesn't have to," John O. Brennan said on "Fox News Sunday."

"We have different ways of obtaining information from individuals" in the criminal-justice process, Brennan said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "A lot of people . . . understand what they're facing, and their lawyers recognize that there is advantage to talking to us in terms of plea agreements, [and] we're going to pursue that." Brennan told CNN's "State of the Union" that other terrorism suspects have "given us very valuable information as they've gone through the plea-agreement process."

Brennan's tour of the talk shows -- he also appeared on ABC's "This Week" -- came as the administration tried to counter, and move out in front of, widespread criticism of intelligence systems that did not identify Abdulmutallab as an al-Qaeda operative or detect the explosive he was allegedly carrying before he boarded Northwest Airlines Flight 253.

Much of the criticism Sunday, however, centered on the decision to try him in civilian court rather than hold him as a military prisoner. "If we had treated this Christmas Day bomber as a terrorist, he would have immediately been interrogated military-style, rather than given the rights of an American and lawyers," Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) said on CNN. "We probably lost valuable information."

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said it was a "very serious mistake" to send Abdulmutallab to federal court.

"He was trained, equipped and directed by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula," Lieberman said on ABC. "That was an act of war. He should be treated as a prisoner of war, held in a military brig, questioned now, and should have been ever since apprehended for intelligence that could help us stop the next attack or get people in Yemen."

Lieberman and others questioned the administration's ongoing plans to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and transfer or release about 200 remaining inmates there.

"If we don't stop the practice of releasing Guantanamo detainees to Yemen or to other countries . . . we're asking for even more trouble," said Sen. Kit Bond (Mo.), the senior Republican on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which has said it will begin hearings on the Christmas incident on Jan. 21. "I think there ought to be an immediate halt put to releases from Guantanamo."

Brennan called Guantanamo Bay "a propaganda tool for al-Qaeda" and countered that 532 Guantanamo detainees had been released by the Bush administration, including some who have subsequently appeared as senior officials in the al-Qaeda organization in Yemen. He said Obama has released 42, including seven Yemenis sent home.

In many ways, Obama was left with only the most difficult cases, however, and the administration has struggled with what to do with them. Plans to try some of the most prominent prisoners in federal court, while putting others before military tribunals, and transferring some to a high-security prison in Illinois have all come under challenge.

Abdulmutallab, who the administration charges was trained for and tasked with the bombing mission by al-Qaeda forces in Yemen, is being held in a federal facility in Milan, Mich. He is due to appear in federal court Friday.

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