By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 3, 2010; A03
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the man accused of trying to blow up a jet airplane on Christmas Day, has been providing FBI interrogators with useful intelligence about his training and contacts since last week, Obama administration sources said Tuesday.
Separately, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III told senators at an intelligence committee hearing that Abdulmutallab was giving information to investigators. Mueller did not elaborate.
The disclosures that the Nigerian student is cooperating with criminal investigators come amid a fierce debate in Congress over the Obama administration's handling of the case and, more broadly, its approach to national security.
Dennis C. Blair, President Obama's director of national intelligence, has said Abdulmutallab should have been interrogated by special terrorism investigators instead of FBI agents. House and Senate Republicans have criticized the Justice Department's decision to prosecute Abdulmutallab in a civilian court, rather than through a military commission, and one Senate leader, Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), has called for the resignation of Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.
The Obama administration asserts, however, that its approach is paying dividends. "It's been very successful as far as gaining his cooperation," a senior administration official told reporters late Tuesday, referring to Abdulmutallab. Officials have also said that the civilian legal system is more than capable of handling terrorism investigations and trials.
On the day of his arrest, Abdulmutallab told the FBI during a 50-minute interrogation at a Michigan hospital that he had been trained by an al-Qaeda branch in Yemen. He later stopped cooperating and asked for an attorney.
In recent days, two law enforcement sources said, Abdulmutallab has told authorities more about where he trained overseas and others he met there -- leads that the FBI has shared with other members of the U.S. intelligence community. Investigators are following up to corroborate the information.
U.S. investigators flew members of Abdulmutallab's family from Nigeria to the United States on Jan. 17, the senior administration official said. The family members have proved vital in getting Abdulmutallab to talk, he said -- indicating that it would have been counterproductive to interrogate him under military rules, as some have suggested.
The president is getting briefings on the interrogations of Abdulmutallab, the official said.
All three sources spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.
Officials are continuing to flesh out Abdulmutallab's contacts with radical Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Aulaqi, who allegedly met with the suspect before the bombing, one source said.
No plea deal between Justice Department lawyers and federal public defender Miriam Siefer is imminent, the sources said, but both sides began negotiating last week, as reported by The Washington Post.
If convicted, Abdulmutallab faces a virtual life sentence on six criminal charges, including using a plane as a weapon of mass destruction. In exchange for his renewed cooperation, authorities could recommend that a federal judge reduce any prison sentence Abdulmutallab might face, a common occurrence in the criminal justice system.
Siefer did not immediately respond to requests for comment, but she is said to be helping advance the negotiations, along with representatives for Abdulmutallab's family, which is prominent in Nigeria, the law enforcement sources said.
The approach appears to closely follow the FBI and Justice Department's handling of David Coleman Headley, a Chicago resident accused of serving as an advance man for the Mumbai terrorist attacks. Headley has pleaded not guilty to criminal charges, but federal prosecutors and defense attorneys have said he has been sharing information with the FBI for months about his alleged contacts with terrorist-linked groups overseas.
Staff writers Joby Warrick and Anne E. Kornblut contributed to this report.