By Scott Wilson and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, February 4, 2010; A01
The Obama administration is aggressively pushing back against Republican criticism of its handling of terrorism suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, sharpening a partisan debate about national security policy, which is likely to be a major issue throughout the midterm election year.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs issued a rare point-by-point critique of a statement by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who said Wednesday that "there was no consultation with intelligence officials before the Department of Justice unilaterally decided to treat Abdulmutallab as if he were an ordinary criminal." Gibbs released a list of senior intelligence officials involved in the decision to charge Abdulmutallab -- a Nigerian citizen who allegedly tried to bomb a Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day -- in civilian court and provide him access to a lawyer.
The rebuttal followed a hastily arranged briefing for reporters the previous evening by a senior administration official, who argued against GOP assertions that Abdulmutallab stopped providing his FBI interrogators with intelligence after he was read his Miranda rights. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. also weighed in Wednesday with a letter to Senate Republicans in which he said the legal decisions in the Abdulmutallab case were consistent with the strategy used during George W. Bush's administration. And Dennis C. Blair, the nation's top intelligence official, told lawmakers that U.S. citizens who threaten the country from overseas could be killed.
"Obviously, this is a change in debate," White House deputy press secretary Bill Burton told reporters. "This administration is doing everything it can to both make sure the American people know exactly what's happening inside the administration and also to answer questions that people might have or challenges that might come about the way that we're doing things."
Obama has been hammered by Republican criticism since the Christmas Day incident -- first for not speaking out about it quickly enough and now for how he has handled Abdulmutallab's arrest and detention. As the congressional campaign season begins, Republicans are using the case to again challenge Obama's argument that civil liberties should have a central place in the country's antiterrorism efforts, a reversal from the previous administration that has been politically difficult to implement.
In his victory speech last month, Sen.-elect Scott Brown (R-Mass.) accused the administration of granting "new rights" to terrorists and said that "tax dollars should pay for weapons to stop them, not lawyers to defend them." A Washington Post-ABC News poll in mid-January showed that public support for the government's antiterrorism efforts had dipped to a post-Sept. 11, 2001, low. But few of those surveyed blamed Obama, with nearly two-thirds approving of the way he responded to the Christmas Day attack and more than half supporting his approach to "the threat of terrorism" generally.
Obama has made a calculated effort in the past week to showcase GOP recalcitrance toward his plans for health care, energy policy and deficit reduction. Republicans have steered the debate toward national security as the White House reconsiders its decision to try alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed in a Lower Manhattan courtroom and struggles to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
In the Abdulmutallab case, Republicans have accused the administration of granting the Nigerian too many legal rights, saying that by doing so, FBI interrogators have been prevented from making the most of his potential intelligence value. Among those offering the sharpest criticism is Collins, a moderate who is among the few Republicans who have supported some Obama initiatives.
In her response to Obama's radio address over the weekend, Collins said that the White House has a "blind spot" regarding terrorism and said investigators have spent less than an hour questioning Abdulmutallab. Collins contended Wednesday that reports that a plea deal is in the works suggest the administration is granting Abdulmutallab a "measure of leniency."
Administration officials have acknowledged that the suspect initially spoke to investigators for less than an hour before being treated for injuries. He then asked for a lawyer, although U.S. officials say he stopped speaking to investigators before he was read his rights.
Senior administration officials said Abdulmutallab is cooperating again. U.S. investigators brought over members of his family from Nigeria on Jan. 17 to encourage him to talk.
On Wednesday, Gibbs issued a five-point memo rebutting a series of Republican criticisms. He wrote that senior members of the intelligence community knew that Abdulmutallab was going to be indicted in civilian court and approved of the decision. He also noted that Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen convicted in 2007 of supporting terrorism, was granted the right to counsel even when he was held as an "enemy combatant" during the Bush administration. "Abdulmutallab has not been offered anything," Gibbs wrote.
The administration's more forceful approach began Tuesday evening when the White House summoned reporters for a briefing on interrogators' progress with Abdulmutallab. A senior White House official said the administration is "confident that he is going to continue to cooperate," adding that the information "will be leveraged to the fullest extent."
During a Wednesday hearing of the House intelligence committee, Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.) criticized the White House tactics, saying, "I wish you would hastily call a meeting or a conference call with this committee to share information on terrorist cases that might help."
"What policies can't pass public scrutiny or pass the scrutiny of this committee?" he said.
In his letter to Senate Republicans, Holder took responsibility for the decision to charge Abdulmutallab in federal criminal court, saying it was "fully consistent with the long established . . . policies of the Department of Justice and the FBI." He wrote that the Bush administration used the same strategy to prosecute more than 300 terrorism suspects in U.S. courts.
"The criminal justice system has proven to be one of the most effective weapons available to our government for both incapacitating terrorists and collecting intelligence from them," he wrote. "Removing this . . . from our arsenal would be as foolish as taking our military and intelligence options off the table against al-Qaeda, and as dangerous."
In a statement, Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said: "Instead of trying to excuse the inexcusable, the administration should take responsibility for the dire consequences of its decision to swiftly grant civilian rights to this foreign terrorist."
Staff writers Carrie Johnson, Walter Pincus and Michael A. Fletcher; polling director Jon Cohen; and research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.