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Authorities seek deal with Detroit suspect on cooperation, guilty plea

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By Carrie Johnson, Walter Pincus and Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 29, 2010

Authorities are inching toward an agreement that would secure cooperation from the suspect in the failed Detroit airliner attack, according to two sources familiar with the case, even as fresh details emerged about the intense and chaotic response to the Christmas Day incident.

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Seizing on the near miss, GOP lawmakers have mounted a sustained attack on President Obama and the Justice Department, saying they may have lost out on valuable intelligence by charging Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in a federal court rather than under the military justice system.

But new details complicate that narrative, suggesting that Abdulmutallab, 23, clammed up even before he was informed of his right to remain silent -- a warning that could have come later had he been placed in military custody. He continued to speak to authorities before undergoing treatment for second- and third-degree burns below the waist that occurred during a bid to detonate explosives on Northwest Flight 253.

The incident has provoked criticism that federal agencies missed intelligence signals that might have prevented the attack, and has reignited a fierce debate about the adequacy of traditional law enforcement tools to combat terrorist threats.

Public defenders for the Nigerian student are engaged in negotiations that could result in an agreement to share more information and eventually a guilty plea, the sources said.

Negotiations could still collapse before the next scheduled court date, in April, the sources said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing. But senior members of the administration's national security apparatus have publicly said that a plea deal is likely, given the virtual life sentence that Abdulmutallab could face on charges of using an airplane as a weapon of mass destruction.

Miriam Siefer, a federal public defender in Detroit, declined to comment on the case this week, as did a Justice Department spokesman in Washington.

A partial chronology provided by an administration official, and supplemented by interviews with additional federal sources, underscores the intense response by multiple agencies.

The plane landed at Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport at 11:53 a.m., seven minutes after local authorities had received an alert of trouble aboard. The plane was met by officials from several agencies, including U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Transportation Security Administration and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, as well as airport police and emergency medical crews.

Customs agents assumed command, arresting Abdulmutallab, removing him from the plane and taking him to a nearby room for questioning. "There were a lot of police milling around" speaking to witnesses, the administration official said.

When Abdulmutallab was taken to the University of Michigan Health System in Ann Arbor, he was met by FBI agents from the bureau's Detroit office, who, after consulting with doctors, determined Abulmutallab was lucid.

During a 50-minute interrogation, another federal source said, Abdulmutallab provided the FBI with key information, including where he was trained for the operation and who gave him nearly 80 grams of PETN, a volatile chemical often employed by the military.


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