White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters on Thursday he believes Attorney General Eric Holder was responsible for deciding to try the alleged Christmas Day airplane bomber in federal court and not treat him as an military prisoner subject to interrogation.
The administration’s Director of National Intelligence, Dennis C. Blair, and a number of administration critics have said that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab should have been questioned by trained anti-terrorism investigators rather than by the FBI. The critics say the opportunity to gain valuable intelligence now may be lost, since Abdulmutallab is being treated as a criminal suspect with rights against self-incrimination.
Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s top Republican, sent a letter today to the Attorney General, asking who made the decision. After Sessions sent his letter and Gibbs made his comment, Holder’s spokesman, Matthew Miller, issued a statement defending the decision to try Abdulmutallab.
“Those who now argue that a different action should have been taken in this case were notably silent when dozens of terrorist were successfully prosecuted in federal court by the previous administration,” Miller said in the statement, citing the prosecutions of al-Qaeda operatives Richard Reid and Zacarias Moussaoui. Read Miller’s full statement here.
Democrats are reeling from the surprise victory on Tuesday of Republican Scott Brown in a special election for the Massachusetts Senate seat left open by the death of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D). The GOP victory has thrown President Barack Obama’s health care reform plans in disarray and caused many Democrats to question whether the party has moved too far to the political left.
Holder has been under attack by Republicans for other national security decisions as well, including trying alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in federal court in Manhattan, reopening an investigation into whether certain CIA interrogations of suspected terrorists broke the law, and successfully arguing for the release of Bush-era Department of Justice legal memos that authorized torture.
Here’s the transcript from today’s White House press briefing:
Q … who made the decision to try Abdulmutallab in federal court? Was the president aware of this decision when he began being processed in the legal system?
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, understand that the decision to try him was handed down in an indictment that I think took place many days afterward. So, yes, all the team was involved in that.
Q So the decision was made over a period of days. I mean, there was a time between which he was taken into custody on Christmas Day and a time in which the decision was made that -
MR. GIBBS: Well, understand this, there was a period of time in which he was taken into custody, a period of time in which experienced FBI agents interrogated him, received valuable intelligence from him. He was arraigned at a later period of time, and later than that was indicted.
Q And who made the decision to try him in federal court? Did the president make that call?
MR. GIBBS: I believe that decision is made by the Attorney General.
This story was updated at 8:17 p.m.