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.

By , Staff writer

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    In this Dec. 16, 2009 file photo, Attorney General Eric Holder speaks during a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington. Holder said Wednesday, he made the decision to charge the Christmas Day terror suspect in civilian court rather than the military system.
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Attorney General Eric Holder on Wednesday strongly defended his decision to treat alleged Christmas Day bomber Umar Abdulmutallab as a criminal defendant rather than turn him over to the US military as an enemy combatant.

In a five-page letter to Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, Mr. Holder took sole responsibility for the decision to keep Mr. Abdulmutallab within the criminal justice system. He also defended the decision to issue Miranda warnings to the suspect.

Senator McConnell and other Republicans have said that advising a terror suspect of his right to remain silent and consult a lawyer undercuts the ability to obtain critical intelligence information that might prevent a terror attack.

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Holder rejected that notion. “The widespread experience of law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, is that many defendants will talk and cooperate with law enforcement agents after being informed of their right to remain silent,” he wrote.

Rift over antiterror policies

Holder’s response is likely to turn up the heat in an intensifying confrontation between Republicans in Congress and the White House over the future direction of US antiterror policies.

Earlier on Wednesday, McConnell pledged to cut off funding, if necessary, to prevent accused 9/11 mastermind Khaled Sheikh Mohammed from being tried in a federal courtroom in New York City.

The Obama administration should put Mr. Mohammed on trial before a military commission at the Guantánamo Bay naval base, McConnell said in a speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

He is not alone. A bipartisan group of senators is working on legislation that would block any federal funding for civilian trials in the US for 9/11 suspects.

On the Abdulmutallab case, Republicans said the failed Al Qaeda suicide bomber was questioned only for 50 minutes by FBI agents before being advised of his right to remain silent and consult a lawyer. After that, he reportedly stopped talking.

Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine, among others, has said Abdulmutallab should have been treated as an enemy combatant rather than as an ordinary criminal, and interrogated about his training in Yemen and Al Qaeda contacts.

“The Obama administration appears to have a blind spot when it comes to the war on terror,” she said. “This administration cannot see a foreign terrorist even when he stands right in front of them, fresh from an attempt to blow a plane out of the sky on Christmas Day.”

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.

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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