By Spencer S. Hsu and Jennifer Agiesta
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 21, 2010; A03
The man accused of trying to blow up a U.S. airliner on Christmas Day should have been interrogated by special terrorism investigators instead of FBI agents, the nation's intelligence chief said Wednesday, adding that senior national security officials were not consulted before FBI and Justice Department authorities questioned him and pursued criminal charges.
Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair faulted the decision not to use the "High Value Interrogation Group" (HIG) to question alleged al-Qaeda operative Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.
"That unit was created exactly for this purpose -- to make a decision on whether a certain person who's detained should be treated as a case for federal prosecution or for some of the other means," Blair told the Senate homeland security committee.
The intelligence chief said the interrogation group was created by the White House last year to handle overseas cases but will be expanded now to domestic ones. "We did not invoke the HIG in this case; we should have," he added.
Blair amended his remarks later in written statements, acknowledging that the interrogation group is not "fully operational." However, he maintained, "There should be a decision process right at the outset as to the balance between intelligence-gathering and evidence for prosecution."
The revelation renewed the debate over the country's counterterrorism policies, triggering harsh criticism from Republicans, questions from some Democrats and rebukes from Obama aides. Wednesday marked Congress's first chance, since returning from its winter break, to question nearly a dozen administration officials in four hearings about the failed bombing attempt aboard the flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.
A string of domestic terrorism cases last year have weakened public confidence in the nation's counterterrorism efforts, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll released Wednesday. Public disapproval of the president's decision to close the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention facility for terror suspects reached a new high, at 56 percent, although a majority of those surveyed said that Obama was doing about as well as or better than former president George W. Bush on handling intelligence reports about terrorist threats.
In the new poll of 1,083 adults, conducted Jan. 12-15, fewer than half gave positive grades to U.S. efforts to break up al-Qaeda, improve intelligence gathering and reorganize government to fight terrorism. More said that the United States is winning the cooperation of foreign governments.
President Obama has announced findings of internal reviews of the Christmas Day plot; ordered intelligence, terror-watch-list and travel screening changes; and called the failure unacceptable.
According to Blair, FBI agents on the ground consulted with headquarters and the Justice Department on the decision to charge Abdulmutallab. "We need to make those [charging] decisions more carefully. . . . It should have been taken . . . at a higher level," the intelligence chief said.
Blair, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, National Counterterrorism Center Director Michael E. Leiter and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told lawmakers that they were not consulted about the charging decision.
However, Mueller said other FBI, Justice and administration officials were involved, and he defended the handling of the case before the Senate Judiciary Committee. FBI agents made their decisions amid "fast-moving events," Mueller said, and "there was no time" to move the other interrogators into place.
Mueller said FBI agents took custody of Abdulmutallab at a hospital Dec. 25 and used a brief window to question him before he underwent surgery for burns. The interrogation provided what another senior U.S. law enforcement official called "a treasure-trove of valuable intelligence." Abdulmutallab was read his Miranda rights that evening, Mueller said, and other U.S. officials said he asked for a lawyer and stopped talking.
A senior Obama aide closely involved in the administration review said in an interview that FBI authorities in Detroit have deep experience investigating al-Qaeda cases, and that they gained both valuable intelligence and preserved a criminal prosecution. The decisions "are consistent with our law, consistent with our principles, and so I have no problem with the way this was handled," the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity before Blair's remarks in response to congressional criticism.
Even if Abdulmutallab had been turned over to the military, he would have been entitled to a civilian lawyer, a second Obama aide said.
But Senate Republicans said that treating Abdulmutallab as a criminal suspect, instead of delivering him to the U.S. military as an enemy combatant, may have prevented the government from learning more about other Yemen-based plots by al-Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula, with whom Abdulmutallab allegedly worked.
"It sounds to me like the guys on the ground just made a decision on the fly," said Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), the ranking Republican on the judiciary panel.
"It's a terrible, terrible mistake, when it's pretty clear that this individual did not act alone," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said.
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), a former U.S. attorney, said she knew of no precedent for sending a terror suspect apprehended on American soil immediately into military custody. She added that José Padilla, a U.S. citizen sentenced to 17 years in prison on terrorism charges, was arrested in Chicago and held for one month as a material witness in 2002 before being transferred to a military prison and back to criminal court in 2006.
Still, McCaskill warned Obama officials, "We're going to lose the ability to use all those tools if we don't reassure the American people that there's a process in place, that these decisions are being made with the right people in the room."
Blair also criticized lawmakers in both parties for pushing the Bush administration to shrink the no-fly list through the addition of "legalistic" directives. Leiter, the counterterrorism chief, said under rules at the time, it would have been a judgment call for analysts to add Abdulmutallab, even if the government had connected all the information it had about him.
Staff writers Carrie Johnson, Karen DeYoung and Greg Jaffe and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.