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Holder letter: why we read Christmas Day bomber his rights

In a letter to Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell, Attorney General Eric Holder defended his decision to treat the Christmas Day bomber as a criminal defendant, not an enemy combatant.

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The White House responded by releasing information showing that although Abdulmutallab had stopped talking at one point, he has since resumed cooperation with federal agents.

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Both the debate over civilian trials in New York and the issue of Abdulmutallab’s interrogation reflect a deep rift between a Republican approach to counter-terrorism and a Democrat approach. Republican officials defend many of the policies of the Bush administration and have criticized Obama for policy shifts.

Lower-key interrogation tactics

In the case of Abdulmutallab, federal agents appear to be following a less aggressive interrogation strategy aimed at convincing the young Nigerian to voluntarily cooperate, rather than employing the kinds of brutal interrogation methods approved during the Bush administration.

The new tactics included using members of Abdulmutallab’s family to help persuade him to cooperate, according to officials.

“These interrogations are working. We're getting evidence that is actionable,” Deputy White House Press Secretary Bill Burton told reporters Wednesday. He added that the president was “pleased” with the results and that the administration believes it has pursued the correct interrogation strategy.

In his letter, Holder did not characterize the quantity or quality of intelligence obtained from Abdulmutallab. But he suggested his decision to charge him as a criminal did not hinder intelligence-gathering.

Holder also disputed critics’ claims that the Christmas Day bomber could have been held in military detention without access to a lawyer.

“There is no court-approved system currently in place in which suspected terrorists captured inside the United States can be detained and held without access to an attorney,” Holder said.

Holder said the initial questioning of Abdulmutallab was conducted without Miranda warnings, under a public safety exception. But FBI policy required the warnings to be given prior to subsequent questioning.

‘Enemy combatant’ status considered

Holder also said the president and his national security team had considered and discussed the possibility of holding Abdulmutallab as an enemy combatant. He added: “No agency supported the use of law of war detention for Abdulmutallab, and no agency has since advised the Department of Justice that an alternative course of action should have been, or should now be, pursued.”

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters Wednesday that top defense and intelligence officials were aware of and supported the decision to place Abdulmutallab in the criminal justice system.

In his speech, Senator McConnell criticized the White House and Holder for adopting what he called a “law enforcement mentality.” He added: “The attorney general should not be running the war on terror.”

Holder appeared to answer the comment with his own salvo.

“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 said.

“Removing this highly effective weapon from our arsenal would be as foolish as taking our military and intelligence options off the table against Al Qaeda, and as dangerous.”

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