Authorities seek deal with Detroit suspect on cooperation, guilty plea

By Carrie Johnson, Walter Pincus and Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 29, 2010; A04

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.

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.

The early FBI interrogation was "quite valuable," said National Counterterrorism Center chief Michael E. Leiter, testifying before the House Homeland Security Committee this week. While the conversations continued, FBI and Justice Department officials discussed whether and how the suspect should be informed of his right to remain silent, but no Miranda warnings were given during the early questioning.

Medical personnel wheeled in Abdulmutallab for treatment later in the afternoon of Dec. 25. About 5 p.m., White House counterterrorism adviser John O. Brennan chaired a videoconference with intelligence community representatives.

Agents again visited Abdulmutallab about 9 p.m., finding him more combative and allegedly citing jihadist intentions. He asked for a lawyer. FBI agents then read him his rights. Abdulmutallab was charged in a criminal complaint the next day, after a meeting of the president's national security team in which the Justice Department outlined its approach.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, this month signed a letter with 20 other Republicans demanding that Obama transfer Abdulmutallab into the Pentagon's hands.

"I hope in the coming days President Obama will finally explain to the American people why . . . he continues to believe that foreign terrorists should be treated not as the war criminals they are, but as the very civilians they are determined to attack," Sessions said Thursday.

Administration officials say they are puzzled by Republicans' heated reactions. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist strikes, every suspect apprehended on U.S. soil has been initially held under federal criminal law, including shoe bomber Richard C. Reid. David C. Headley, accused of scouting out locations for the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, and Adis Medunjanin, arrested in an alleged plot to target New York, are providing the FBI with intelligence after being read their rights, officials said.

"The people arguing that a different action should have been taken in this case were notably silent when dozens of terrorists were prosecuted in federal court by the last administration," said Matthew Miller, a spokesman for the Justice Department.

Previous efforts to use the military to detain and question terrorism suspects in the United States have met with skepticism from the courts and the George W. Bush administration, analysts said.

They pointed to a 2002 proposal to deploy the military to arrest and interrogate members of an alleged terrorist cell in Lackawanna, N.Y., an approach that won support from then-Vice President Richard B. Cheney but was rejected by others in the White House. The Lackawanna suspects later pleaded guilty in federal court.

Jose Padilla, who was detained at an airport in 2002 on terrorism suspicions and charged in federal court, ultimately was designated an enemy belligerent and sent to a military brig. Then-U.S. District Judge Michael B. Mukasey, who has recently criticized the Obama approach to the Christmas Day incident, ruled that Padilla had the right to meet with a lawyer, who the judge reasoned would present only minimal interference with the interrogation.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company