Details of arrest of bombing suspect disclosed

By Devlin Barrett
Sunday, January 24, 2010; A03

Badly burned and bleeding, the suspect in the attempted bombing of the Christmas Day flight to Detroit tried one last gambit as he was led away: He said there was another bomb hidden on board, officials said.

It wasn't true, federal agents learned after a tense search. But the Nigerian suspect's threat began hours of conversations that are now the subject of fierce political debate over the right way to handle terrorism suspects.

In interviews, U.S. officials described for the first time the details of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's arrest Dec. 25 at Detroit Metro Airport and the decisions that were made about how to interrogate him.

Captured after a bomb hidden in his underwear ignited but did not explode, Abdulmutallab initially spoke freely and provided valuable intelligence, officials said. Federal agents repeatedly interviewed him or heard him speak to others. When they read him his legal rights nearly 10 hours after the incident, he went silent.

Since the attempted bombing, several prominent lawmakers have argued he should have been placed immediately in military custody. The nation's top intelligence official said he should have been questioned by a special group of terrorism investigators, rather than by the FBI agents who responded to the scene.

The Justice Department has said those who argue the case should have been handled differently were silent when the Bush administration successfully prosecuted dozens of terrorists in federal court.

The officials who described the events said on-scene investigators never discussed turning Abdulmutallab over to military authorities. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose details of the investigation.

According to the officials, after being restrained and stripped bare by fellow passengers and by crew members, Abdulmutallab was handed over to U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers and local police. The officers decided that Abdulmutallab needed immediate medical attention, and an ambulance crew took him to the burn unit at the University of Michigan Medical Center.

Along the way, the officials said, Abdulmutallab repeatedly made incriminating statements to the Customs officers guarding him. He told them he had acted alone on the plane and had been trying to take down the aircraft, they said.

Abdulmutallab arrived at the hospital just before 2 p.m. Still under guard, he told a doctor treating him that he had tried to trigger the explosive, the sources said.

FBI agents from the Detroit bureau arrived at the hospital around 2:15 p.m., and were briefed by the Customs agents and officers as Abdulmutallab received medical treatment. Shortly after 3:30 p.m., FBI agents began interviewing the suspect in his hospital room, joined by a Customs officer and an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent.

The suspect spoke openly, said one official, talking in detail about what he'd done and the planning that went into the attack. Other counterterrorism officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it was during this questioning that he admitted he had been trained and instructed in the plot by al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen.

The interview lasted about 50 minutes. Before they began questioning Abdulmutallab, the FBI agents decided not to give him his Miranda warning providing his right to remain silent.

Although the Miranda warning, based on a 1966 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, is a bedrock principle of the U.S. justice system, there is a major exception that could apply in Abdulmutallab's case. Investigators are allowed to question a suspect without providing a Miranda warning if they are trying to end a threat to public safety.

In a future trial in a federal court, prosecutors would probably seek to justify Abdulmutallab's questioning without a Miranda warning by arguing that the FBI agents needed to know quickly if there were other planes with bombs headed for the United States. The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and other plots have shown al-Qaeda's penchant for synchronized attacks in multiple locations.

Abdulmutallab's interview ended when he was given medication and investigators decided it would be better to let the effects of the drugs wear off before pressing him further. He would not be questioned again for more than five hours. By that point, officials said, FBI bosses in Washington had decided a new interrogation team was needed. They made that move in case the lack of a Miranda warning or the suspect's medical condition at the time of the earlier conversations posed legal problems later on for prosecutors.

Based on the instructions from Washington, the second interview was conducted by different FBI agents and others with the local joint terrorism task force. Such a move is not unusual in cases in which investigators or prosecutors want to protect themselves from challenges to evidence or statements.

By bringing in a "clean team" of investigators to talk to the suspect, federal officials aimed to ensure that Abdulmutallab's statements would still be admissible if not giving him his Miranda warning led a judge to rule out the use of his first admissions.

Even if Abdulmutallab's statements are ruled out as evidence, they still provided valuable intelligence for U.S. counterterrorism officials to pursue, officials said.

In the end, though, the "clean team" of interrogators did not prod more revelations from the suspect. Having rested and received more extensive medical treatment, Abdulmutallab was told of his right to remain silent and his right to have an attorney.

He remained silent.

-- Associated Press

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