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Where the U.S. went wrong on the Christmas Day bomber

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By Michael B. Mukasey
Friday, February 12, 2010

It seems to me unlikely that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab will be known to future generations of lawyers for generating any groundbreaking legal principle or issue. But when it comes to illuminating our public discourse about the "global war on terror," he is right up there with Clarence Earl Gideon, Ernesto Miranda or even Jose Padilla. His case presents in one tidy package virtually all the issues that arise from the role intelligence plays in this struggle and compels us to examine what the law requires and what it doesn't.

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When Abdulmutallab tried to detonate a bomb concealed in his undershorts, he committed a crime; no doubt about that. He could not have acted alone; no doubt about that either. The bomb was not the sort of infernal device readily produced by someone of his background, and he quickly confirmed that he had been trained and sent by al-Qaeda in Yemen.

What to do and who should do it? It was entirely reasonable for the FBI to be contacted and for that agency to take him into custody. But contrary to what some in government have suggested, that Abdulmutallab was taken into custody by the FBI did not mean, legally or as a matter of policy, that he had to be treated as a criminal defendant at any point. Consider: In 1942, German saboteurs landed on Long Island and in Florida. That they were eventually captured by the FBI did not stop President Franklin Roosevelt from directing that they be treated as unlawful enemy combatants. They were ultimately tried before a military commission in Washington and executed. Their status had nothing to do with who held them, and their treatment was upheld in all respects by the Supreme Court.

If possible, FBI custody is even less relevant today in determining someone's status. In 1942 the FBI was exclusively a crime-fighting organization. After Sept. 11, 2001, the agency's mission was expanded beyond detection of crime and apprehension of criminals to include gathering intelligence, helping to prevent and combat threats to national security, and furthering U.S. foreign policy goals. Guidelines put in place in 2003 and revised in September 2008 "do not require that the FBI's information gathering activities be differentially labeled as 'criminal investigations,' 'national security investigations,' or 'foreign intelligence collections,' or that the categories of FBI personnel who carry out investigations be segregated from each other based on the subject areas in which they operate. Rather, all of the FBI's legal authorities are available for deployment in all cases to which they apply to protect the public from crimes and threats to the national security and to further the United States' foreign intelligence objectives."

"As with criminal investigations generally, detecting and solving the crimes, and eventually arresting and prosecuting the perpetrators, are likely to be among the objectives of investigations relating to threats to the national security. But . . . other measures needed to protect the national security . . . may include . . . providing threat information and warnings to other federal . . . agencies and entities; diplomatic or military actions; and actions by other intelligence agencies to counter international terrorism or other national security threats."

Contrary to what the White House homeland security adviser and the attorney general have suggested, if not said outright, not only was there no authority or policy in place under the Bush administration requiring that all those detained in the United States be treated as criminal defendants, but relevant authority was and is the opposite. The Supreme Court held in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld that "indefinite detention for the purpose of interrogation is not authorized" but also said in the same case that detention for the purpose of neutralizing an unlawful enemy combatant is permissible and that the only right of such a combatant -- even if he is a citizen, and Abdulmutallab is not -- is to challenge his classification as such a combatant in a habeas corpus proceeding. This does not include the right to remain silent or the right to a lawyer, but only such legal assistance as may be necessary to file a habeas corpus petition within a reasonable time. That was the basis for my ruling in Padilla v. Rumsfeld that, as a convenience to the court and not for any constitutionally based reason, he had to consult with a lawyer for the limited purpose of filing a habeas petition, but that interrogation need not stop.

What of Richard Reid, the "shoe bomber," who was warned of his Miranda rights and prosecuted in a civilian court? He was arrested in December 2001, before procedures were put in place that would have allowed for an outcome that might have included not only conviction but also exploitation of his intelligence value, if possible. His case does not recommend the same procedure in Abdulmutallab's.

The struggle against Islamist extremists is unlike any other war we have fought. Osama bin Laden and those like-minded intend to make plain that our government cannot keep us safe, and have sought our retreat from the Islamic world and our relinquishment of the idea that human rather than their version of divine law must control our activities. This movement is not driven by finite grievances or by poverty. The enemy does not occupy a particular location or have an infrastructure that can be identified and attacked but, rather, lives in many places and purposely hides among civilian populations. The only way to prevail is to gather intelligence on who is doing what where and to take the initiative to stop it.

There was thus no legal or policy compulsion to treat Abdulmutallab as a criminal defendant, at least initially, and every reason to treat him as an intelligence asset to be exploited promptly. The way to do that was not simply to have locally available field agents question him but, rather, to get in the room people who knew about al-Qaeda in Yemen, people who could obtain information, check that information against other available data and perhaps get feedback from others in the field before going back to Abdulmutallab to follow up where necessary, all the while keeping secret the fact of his cooperation. Once his former cohorts know he is providing information, they can act to make that information useless.

Nor is it an answer to say that Abdulmutallab resumed his cooperation even after he was warned of his rights. He did that after five weeks, when his family was flown here from Nigeria. The time was lost, and with it possibly useful information. Disclosing that he had resumed talking only compounded the problem by letting his former cohorts know that they had better cover their tracks.

The writer was U.S. attorney general from 2007 to 2009 and the presiding judge at initial proceedings against Jose Padilla in 2002.


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