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Holder defends decision to read Miranda rights to Shahzad, cites his continuing cooperation

By William Branigin and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 6, 2010; 4:09 PM

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. told a Senate panel Thursday that Faisal Shahzad, the suspect in Saturday's attempted car bombing in Times Square, is continuing to cooperate with federal agents as they try to unravel a plot with potential foreign origins, and investigators believe he is telling them the truth.

Appearing before a subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Holder strongly defended a decision to read Shahzad his Miranda rights within hours of his arrest late Monday, saying interrogators had already obtained useful information from him and that he continued to talk afterward.

"As we've seen in prior investigations, the giving of Miranda warnings has not deterred people from talking to us, and Mr. Shahzad is continuing to cooperate with us," Holder testified.

"We will continue to pursue a number of leads as we gather intelligence relating to this attempted attack," he said.

Holder also said that Shahzad, 30, a naturalized U.S. citizen originally from Pakistan, could face life in prison if convicted on terrorism charges. An FBI complaint issued Tuesday accused Shahzad of five felony counts of attempting to detonate explosives in Times Square and said he had admitted his involvement. Shahzad has not yet appeared in court, however. A federal court appearance originally set for Tuesday was postponed amid indications that interrogators wanted to continue questioning him before bringing him before a judge.

After some initial doubts, investigators now believe that the information Shahzad is giving them is largely credible, a senior administration official said Thursday.

Officials had said earlier that they were treating the suspect's statements skeptically. But on Thursday, an official said that while there are "bits and pieces" that seem dubious, they are "not rejectable but simply questionable."

"We have nothing that is contradictory to what he is telling us," the official said.

The theory of Shahzad's radicalization is still being developed, and investigators are "struggling" to come up with a cohesive account of how he evolved into a would-be terrorist, the official said.

"At some point in time, he seems to have gotten the bug -- and it seems to have been actualized on his last trip to Pakistan," the official said, adding that there is some new material from the interrogations -- which cannot yet be released -- that "sheds some light" on his mindset.

"But frankly, I wouldn't want to yet take what has come out of the interrogations and build a hypothesis out of it," the official said.

Officials continue to believe that the reports of his ties to Pakistani extremists are "very, very realistic," the official said.

According to the Associated Press, a senior U.S. intelligence official said investigators "got what they needed" from Shahzad before they read him his rights, questioning him about whether other attacks were imminent and whether other people assisted him.

After nearly eight hours of questioning, investigators read Shahzad his Miranda rights, AP reported.

Some congressional Republicans have criticized the administration's handling of the Shahzad case, questioning the decision to read him his Miranda rights and suggesting he should have immediately been treated as an enemy combatant.

Holder rejected such criticism under questioning at Thursday's hearing. He said the Supreme Court has held that Miranda warnings have a "constitutional dimension" and that every American who is arrested has a right to hear them.

Miranda warnings are read to people in police custody, whether or not they are U.S. citizens, to advise them that they have the right to remain silent, that anything they say can be used against them in court and that they have a right to an attorney. The mandatory warnings, which get their name from a 1966 Supreme Court decision, are used to ensure that testimonial evidence will be admissible in court.

"There are exceptions to Miranda, and that is one of the ways in which we conduct our interrogations of terrorism suspects," Holder testified. He cited a "public safety exception" that allows police or federal agents to question suspected terrorists about such matters as whether they are acting alone, know of other threats or have anyone coming to help them.

Holder said that in the cases of Shahzad and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian who attempted to detonate explosives hidden in his underwear aboard a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day, "we made extensive use of the public safety exception before a decision was made to give them their Miranda warnings."

Under questioning by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Holder said the courts have not specifically defined how long such questioning can last, but he rejected Republican complaints that the approximately 50 minutes spent interrogating Abdulmutallab under the exception were not sufficient.

"Useful, valuable intelligence was gained in that one hour," Holder said. "In that period of time, qualified, experienced FBI agents can elicit really substantial amounts of information."

In Shahzad's case, he said, "the questioning under the public safety exception far exceeded the amount of time that we had with Mr. Abdulmutallab." He declined to say precisely how long that questioning lasted.

Holder also said that declaring Shahzad an enemy combatant would not void his basic rights to due process. The courts have indicated that "there are certain basic rights that are going to apply no matter what forum," he said.

"There is a very big misconception that somehow or other . . . terrorists have far greater rights in [federal] courts than they would, say, in the military commissions" that were set up to try enemy combatants in the war on terrorism, Holder said. "There is not a distinct advantage that people get if they are in [federal] courts."

Holder said nearly 400 people charged with terrorist offenses have been "successfully prosecuted" in federal courts.

In an initial reaction to Shahzad's arrest, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Tuesday on the Fox Business Network that it "would be a serious mistake" to read Shahzad his Miranda rights "at least until we find out as much information" as possible. "Don't give his guy his Miranda rights until we find out what it's all about," he said.

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) said he plans to introduce a bill that would allow the government to strip the citizenship of U.S. citizens who join foreign terrorist groups. Revoking U.S. citizenship would enable prosecutors to try such defendants in special military tribunals established for enemy combatants. Under current law, Americans cannot be tried in those tribunals.

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