Anti-terrorism chief rebukes politicians who use cases as talking points

By Walter Pincus and Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 8, 2010

President Obama's senior counterterrorism adviser on Sunday criticized politicians for using terrorism situations such as the Detroit bombing case as a "political football."

But leaders of the Republican Party, among the harshest critics of the handling of the Detroit incident, on Sunday disputed John O. Brennan's remarks.

Republican House and Senate members have questioned why Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the suspect in the Christmas Day bombing attempt, was not treated as an enemy combatant instead of being questioned for 50 minutes by the FBI and later given his Miranda rights.

Former Alaska governor and 2008 GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, in her speech Saturday night before the Tea Party convention, said the Obama administration sees "no downsides or upsides to treating terrorists like civilian criminal defendants. But a lot of us would beg to differ."

Without citing individuals, Brennan, a longtime CIA official and now White House deputy national security adviser, said on NBC's "Meet the Press": "Quite frankly, I am tiring of politicians using national security issues such as terrorism as a political football. They are going out there, they are unknowing of the facts, and they are making charges and allegations that are not anchored in reality."

Brennan said that on Christmas night he had briefed four senior House and Senate Republicans about Abdulmutallab, who was "in FBI custody" and at that point "talking" and "cooperating." He said that at no point did any of the four -- Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the Senate Republican minority leader; Sen. Christopher S. Bond (Mo.), ranking GOP member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence; Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), the House minority leader; and Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), ranking minority member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence -- raise concerns about Abdulmutallab being placed in military custody or being Mirandized.

Brennan said "quite a bit of an outcry after the fact" led him to be "concerned on behalf of the counterterrorism professionals" that politicians are using the issue for partisan purposes, whether they be Democrats or Republicans.

On Sunday, all four Republicans took issue with Brennan's characterization of their Christmas night conversations. Don Stewart, a spokesman for McConnell, said the senator was given only "a heads-up that Abdulmutallab was in custody, but little else. He wasn't told of the decision to Mirandize Abdulmutallab." Bond said he also was never told of the decision and added, "It's absurd to try to blame congressional leaders for this dangerous decision that gave terrorists a five-week head start to cover their tracks."

Hoekstra said that Brennan told him the bomber was in custody and that "we're trying to get as much information as we can. We'll keep you posted." No legal strategy was discussed.

Boehner, according to spokesman Kevin Smith, got a call on his unsecured cellphone that was short and "only informed Boehner that . . . Abdulmutallab was in custody." Boehner added that Brennan and the administration "should focus on fixing the near-catastrophic intelligence breakdown that failed to prevent this attack."

During the "Meet the Press" interview, Brennan said the right thing had been done on Christmas, but he made clear that the administration may be rethinking that decision. He said the president had ordered a new look at the processes "and whether or not we can enhance and strengthen them, and that's what we're looking at right now."

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