Fine Print

Obama team debated treating Detroit suspect Abdulmutallab as enemy combatant

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was arraigned as a civilian, but a military approach was considered.
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was arraigned as a civilian, but a military approach was considered. (Verna Sadock/associated Press)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Should Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who allegedly tried to bomb an airliner on Christmas Day, have been considered an enemy combatant under the law of war and placed in military detention? The same question raised by senior Republicans last week was considered during a Jan. 6 National Security Council meeting led by President Obama in the White House Situation Room.

The issue arose when Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. brought up the decision to continue the process to formally charge Abdulmutallab with attempted murder and attempted destruction of an aircraft under the U.S. criminal code.

"The attorney general said, 'I'm going to charge him tomorrow,' " and "there were questions raised about whether or not he should in fact go to law of war detention status," according to the transcript of a White House background briefing for reporters last Tuesday by two senior administration officials.

At that NSC meeting were Vice President Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair, CIA Director Leon Panetta, NSA Director Keith B. Alexander, FBI Director Robert Mueller and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It was not disclosed who raised the question.

In the discussion, it was pointed out that the FBI was working the case, that it had interrogators ready and that two counterterrorism agents were already in Nigeria, beginning a background investigation of Abdulmutallab and his large family.

Two men arrested on U.S. soil were previously deemed enemy combatants -- Jose Padilla and Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri. Both spent years in a military brig in South Carolina, and neither ever cooperated with interrogators.

One factor pointed out during the NSC discussion was that when a person is held in military detention and questioned, it inevitably involves people who wear military uniforms. Those present were told that "it was the professional, considered judgment of the individuals who had access to Abdulmutallab that putting him in front of somebody with a military uniform would have made him even more opposed to any type of cooperation," the senior administration official said at last week's briefing.

"Given what we can do in a military commission and what we can do in the criminal justice system, there was full unanimity on the part of the seniors [President Obama and other NSC members at the meeting] that this was the right way to go," reporters were told last week.

During last week's public debate over the handling of Abdulmutallab, administration spokesmen did not refer to their internal discussions. They also have said little about the keys to getting the 23-year-old to resume talking after his first 50-minute interview Christmas night.

While critics have said the initial questioning of Abdulmutallab is irrelevant, the selection of the Detroit-based FBI agents who carried it out reflects the capabilities the bureau has developed. One of the agents was a counterterrorism veteran. The other was an expert on weapons of mass destruction, present because officials needed to quickly determine the nature of the explosive that got through airport security.

After Abdulmutallab decided to stop talking, was read his Miranda rights and got lawyers, the FBI devised a complex investigative plan, which was outlined to reporters last week.

Two experienced counterterrorism agents were chosen to carry out a background investigation in Nigeria. One goal, suggested by behavioral scientists, was to find family members whom he would trust and who would help heal the split that had led him to cut off relations with his father and be attracted to the Yemeni al-Qaeda group.

The two agents flew on Jan. 1 to Lagos, where they met with State Department workers, CIA officers and other embassy employees. They contacted local authorities and began interviewing Abdulmutallab's family and friends. The FBI plan was to find family members who supported their strategy, and bring them to Washington and Detroit to convince them it was in Abdulmutallab's best interest to trust the U.S. justice system and cooperate. Finally, the family members had to get the young man to trust them.

The family members arrived Jan. 17. "Family talking with the subject, and then making that transition so that they were able to then get an FBI agent, and then agents into the room," was the description given reporters.

The last week in January, Abdulmutallab started giving his FBI debriefers what was described as "not stale intelligence." A senior administration official said last week that he was "confident that he is going to continue to cooperate" -- and as of Monday he was, according to a senior FBI official.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company