By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 9, 2010; A03
Prominent conservatives again hit the airwaves Friday to decry the Obama administration for forsaking valuable intelligence by prosecuting terrorism suspects. Yet a review of four recent criminal cases suggests that old-school law enforcement tools have succeeded in unlocking some terrorists' secrets, experts said.
Since Nigerian student Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab allegedly tried to detonate a high-powered explosive in midair Christmas Day, a political debate has intensified over the decision to prosecute him in an ordinary criminal court. On Friday, former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani (R) blasted prosecutors for "cutting off" questioning of Abdulmutallab and allowing him access to an attorney, rather than holding him under laws of war.
"Why in God's name would you stop questioning a terrorist?" he asked on ABC's "Good Morning America." "It seems to me we're going to be trying the most dangerous terrorists in the wrong place."
The comments followed similarly sharp attacks by Republicans in both chambers of Congress, including Sen. Christopher S. Bond (Mo.), the ranking Republican on the Senate intelligence committee, and Rep. Peter Hoekstra (Mich.), who holds a similar position on the House panel.
Abdulmutallab, 23, appeared Friday in a Detroit courtroom to answer six charges, including attempted murder and attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction, which could send him to prison for life. A U.S. magistrate entered a not-guilty plea on his behalf after Abdulmutallab's lawyer said her client would "stand mute" on the charges. The defendant spoke only to say he understood the charges.
Several GOP lawmakers and national security officials in George W. Bush's White House have said Abdulmutallab should have been treated as an enemy combatant -- held under the laws of war, rather than afforded constitutional protections within the criminal justice system.
Obama administration officials and some national security experts reject that argument, saying it could ignite fierce legal battles. One likely result, the officials suggest, would be a habeas corpus proceeding in which the suspect would secure a lawyer and challenge his custody.
Two enemy combatants captured in the United States during the Bush administration -- Jose Padilla and al-Qaeda sleeper agent Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri -- were initially charged in federal courts. They were transferred to military custody, then pleaded guilty to criminal offenses.
"The bottom line is, you've had 100 people convicted in federal court over the past nine years for terrorism offenses and three from a military commission," an administration official said Friday.
As Abdulmutallab appeared in court, Justice Department leaders vigorously defended their decision to send him there.
In West Palm Beach, Fla., Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said national security "is not a place for political gamesmanship -- the safety of the American people is, I believe and hope, beyond the partisan, reflexive negativism that passes for legitimate criticism in Washington."
David Kris, assistant attorney general for national security, said in a statement: "As a counterterrorism tool, the criminal justice system has been an incredibly effective intelligence collection platform for acquiring information from and about terrorists."
In the past few years, multiple national security suspects who were read their constitutional rights and were provided with defense attorneys have agreed to share useful intelligence with the U.S. government.
In November, federal prosecutors in Minneapolis unsealed criminal charges against eight Somali men who had served as recruiters, sending area youths from the Twin Cities into Africa to serve as suicide bombers. They made the case with help from suspects who had been quietly cooperating with authorities.
A Chicago man who drew law enforcement suspicion after being stopped at O'Hare International Airport ultimately exposed fresh details of the 2008 plot to bomb hotels, a train station and a Jewish cultural center in Mumbai. David Coleman Headley has not pleaded guilty to a crime, but he is cooperating with prosecutors, U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald has said.
Bryant Neal Vinas, a former New York City transit worker and convert to Islam, gave U.S. and Belgian law enforcement a deeper understanding of al-Qaeda training camps and testified in European courts against fellow trainees, according to court papers.
One of the most prolific intelligence sources for authorities in the United States and overseas in recent years has been Mohammed Junaid Babar, a U.S. citizen with Pakistani ties who was arrested in April 2004. Babar met with al-Qaeda commanders in the Afghan-Pakistani border region and organized bombmaking lessons for himself and British jihadists.
He pleaded guilty in New York to conspiracy to provide material support to al-Qaeda, and has testified in terrorism trials in the United Kingdom and Canada.