Sessions: Who Decided Alleged Bomber Is A Civilian?
By Andrew Ramonas | January 21, 2010 12:43 pm

Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s top Republican, told his colleagues today that he will formally ask the Justice Department to identify who decided that the alleged Christmas Day airplane bomber should be treated as a civilian and not as an enemy combatant.

Jeff Sessions (Getty Images

The FBI — not the military — took Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab into custody on Dec. 25 on U.S. soil after he allegedly attempted to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner. Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair testified yesterday on Capitol Hill that his office was not consulted about the use of FBI agents and that special terrorism investigators should have handled Abdulmutallab, according to The Washington Post.

It is unclear who made the decision to treat Abdulmutallab as a civilian. FBI Director Robert Mueller testified yesterday before the committee that the events were “fast-moving” and authorities had “no time” to get other investigators in place. But Mueller said decisions were made “appropriately,” including the decision to read Abdulmutallab his Miranda rights.

Sessions said yesterday that it seemed the decision was made “on the fly.” He added that the FBI’s handling of Abdulmutallab could have precluded the U.S. government from obtaining valuable intelligence.

“I think this is a matter of serious import,” Sessions said yesterday. “I don’t think we have clarity of rules. We need to get it straight.”

Democrats voiced support for the decisions made in the aftermath of the alleged attempted bombing. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, said yesterday that the FBI’s actions were “totally appropriate.” Senators were unable to point to an example of authorities putting an alleged terrorist apprehended on American soil immediately into military custody.

Here’s the letter Sessions and Republican Sens. Orrin Hatch (Utah), Chuck Grassley (Iowa), Jon Kyl (Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), John Cornyn (Texas) and Tom Coburn (Okla.) sent today to Attorney General Eric Holder about the matter:

We are writing to ask who within the Department of Justice made the decision on Christmas day to treat Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab as a criminal suspect, entitled to Miranda warnings and the right to counsel, rather than as a unprivileged enemy belligerent subject to military detention and a full opportunity to gain intelligence. We would also like to know the basis for this decision, including whether the administration has a protocol or policy in place for handling al Qaeda terrorists captured in the United States.

At yesterday’s hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, FBI Director Robert Mueller described how Joint Terrorism Task Force agents initially interrogated Mr. Abdulmutallab without Miranda warnings for the purpose of obtaining intelligence information.  He stated that this short initial interrogation occurred before the terror suspect was taken into surgery and that the decision to provide Miranda warnings and pursue criminal charges was made shortly thereafter “in consultation with the Department of Justice and others in the administration prior to the agents going back in later that evening to interview him.” Director Mueller declined to name the person within the Department who made the decision, stating that he would first have to get approval from the Department. Nonetheless, he made clear the decision was not made “at the local level.”

The Department of Justice’s decision to afford this terrorist Miranda warnings and a civilian prosecution appears to have been made without soliciting input from the Department’s administration partners in the war on terrorism. According to testimony before both the Judiciary Committee and the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, the Department officials who made this decision failed to consult key officials who also have a major role in counterterrorism and intelligence gathering. Dennis Blair, the Director of National Intelligence, testified that he was not consulted.  Similar testimony was provided by Director Mueller, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, and the Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Michael Leiter. Furthermore, Director Mueller testified he did not know whether Defense Secretary Robert Gates was consulted on this decision, which is remarkable given that Mr. Abdulmutallab appears to fit cleanly within the Military Commissions Act definition of an “unprivileged enemy belligerent.”

We believe the Department’s hasty decision to pursue criminal charges against Mr. Abdulmutallab deprived our intelligence agencies of a critical opportunity to interrogate an al Qaeda-trained terrorist who was fresh from training in Yemen. Had Mr. Abdulmutallab been transferred to military custody as an unlawful enemy belligerent, our government would have had more time to gain an understanding of the terrorist training and recruiting network on the Arabian Peninsula, as well as the activities of al Qaeda in Nigeria. More importantly, a thorough and unrushed interrogation might have revealed information to detect and disrupt the next terrorist attack. However, because Mr. Abdulmutallab was given Miranda rights and ceased cooperating, that information is now lost.

It is important that Congress fully understand the basis for the decision in this case and the process by which it was reached so that we can be assured that an appropriate process is in place to address the next terrorist who is captured and detained. To that end, please let us know who within the Department made the decision on Christmas day, as well as the basis and rationale behind the decision. Additionally, please let us know whether a protocol or policy is in place to guide the administration’s action in the next terrorism case.

This post has been updated from an earlier version.

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3 Comments

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