A Detroit federal judge on Tuesday scheduled a June 22 court date for Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the so-called “Christmas Day bomber” who allegedly tried to ignite explosives in his underpants on a Detroit-bound plane on Dec. 25, 2009, the Detroit Free Press reported.
Abdulmutallab did not attend the hearing before U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds. He is being held at the federal prison in Milan, Mich.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Cathleen Corken, of the Eastern District of Michigan, said that federal prosecutors have already turned over hundreds of reports and some videotape evidence to defense lawyers and still have more to turn over.
Jill Price, an attorney from the Detroit federal defender’s office, told the Free Press it has been challenging to review evidence with Abdulmutallab.
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House Republicans chided U.S. intelligence officials Wednesday for failing to connect the dots in the attempted airline bombing on Christmas Day.
The GOP members on the House Judiciary Committee questioned the officials, including FBI Terrorist Screening Center Director Timothy Healy, during a hearing about how Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was allowed to board a Dec. 25 Detroit-bound flight. Abdulmutallab allegedly tried to ignite explosives in his underpants as the plane was landing.
Abdulmutallab’s father expressed fears about the possible radicalization of his son to the U.S. embassy in Nigeria, but the son was not prevented from boarding a U.S.-bound plane.
“The excuse that the dots were not connected at this time is a self-inflicted wound, not prevented by lack of money and certainly not by lack of a directive from all of us on the dais and all of the people of the last administration that we connect the dots,” said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.).
Healy said there isn’t a “magic ball” that allows the intelligence community to know whether to put someone in the Terrorist Screening Database, which is commonly known as the terrorist watch list.
“There was a lot of noise out there,” Healy said. “This [attempted attack] was the result of, we believe, one of the connecting-the-dots issues.”
Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) said the federal government should take steps to improve its security measures to prevent similar incidents in the future.
“Our security system in this instance boils down to the fact that we had to rely on an individual from the Netherlands who saw the underwear bomber do something that he shouldn’t be doing like setting his pants on fire,” Poe said.
President Barack Obama asked the Terrorist Screening Center to thoroughly examine the Terrorist Screening Database to determine the current visa status of suspected or known terrorists. He also asked the TSC to work with other intelligence agencies to determine whether there should be changes to the process of determining whether people should be watch-listed.
Healy said his office has finished its review of the Terrorist Screening Database and expects recommendations on the watch list soon. Since the attempted bombing, the no-fly list, which is a subset of the database, has almost doubled — from about 3,400 people to about 6,000.
“After 9/11, we improved our information sharing,” said Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.) “And now after [Detroit-bound] Flight 253, we will have new analysis teams and better systems to search our databases.”
Healy also testified before a Senate panel on March 10 about the attempted bombing.
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The federal judiciary is requesting $22 million in fiscal 2011 to cover expected costs associated with “high-threat” trials of suspected terrorists.
The request, the first of its kind, acknowledges “certain security and logistical challenges” unique to terrorism trials but steers clear of the raging debate over whether suspected terrorists should be prosecuted in federal court or by military tribunal.
Still, opponents of civilian trials could use the request to bolster arguments that prosecuting suspected terrorists in federal court is too pricey and endangers surrounding communities.
The $22 million is part of the federal judiciary’s $7.3 billion budget request, which was presented to a House Appropriations subcommittee on Thursday.
Judge Julia Gibbons, who chairs the budget committee of the Judicial Conference, the federal judiciary’s policymaking body, said the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui in Alexandria, Va., underscored the need for additional resources.
During the 2006 death penalty trial of Moussaoui, a convicted 9/11 conspirator, the city bogged down with armed guards, rooftop snipers, bomb-sniffing dogs, blocked streets and identification checks.
“High-threat trials in the federal courts present certain security and logistical challenges that must be addressed,” Gibbons said.
Gibbons, of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, also pointed to the cases of “shoe bomber” Richard Reid in Boston and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in Detroit.
Abdulmutallab, who is accused of attempting to blow up an airliner on Christmas Day, has been the focal point of the debate over whether the criminal justice system is equipped to handle suspected terrorists. Republicans have criticized the Obama administration, saying valuable intelligence was likely lost when FBI agents read him his Miranda rights. The White House has said Abdulmutallab began cooperating with authorities after initially clamming up.
Gibbons made no mention of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-professed 9/11 mastermind, whose planned trial in Manhattan was abandoned in the face of bipartisan opposition. (The Obama administration has proposed spending $73 million for security, detention, litigation and transfer of the Mohammed and four alleged 9/11 co-conspirators, who are being held at the military-run prison at Guantanamo Bay.) The Obama administration is in the process of deciding whether the suspects should be tried in military tribunal or federal court.
The $22 million, Gibbons said, would be for security, juror expenses and court-appointed defense counsel costs in “high-threat” terrorism trials. While the Justice Department is responsible for the U.S. Marshals Service, which protects court officers and buildings, the federal judiciary employs additional security guards, a courts spokeswoman said.
Gibbons said her committee would work closely with Congress to refine the request “once we have a better understanding of the number and location of high-threat trials that will take place in federal court.”
See Gibbons’ full remarks below:
I would like to turn briefly to an issue that has been widely discussed in recent months: the issue of whether suspected terrorists should be prosecuted in federal court or by military tribunal. As a neutral party in our system of justice, the Judiciary, of course, has remained silent in this debate. The decision on the appropriate venue to prosecute suspected terrorists will be determined by the Administration and Congress, as is appropriate.
My only comment on this topic is that high-threat trials in the federal courts present certain security and logistical challenges that must be addressed, such as those experienced with the Moussaoui case at the federal courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia, and the Reid (shoe bomber) case at the federal courthouse in Boston, Massachusetts. A case currently in federal court that has been widely publicized is the case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who has been charged with attempting to detonate an explosive device on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on December 25, 2009. He was indicted in federal district court in Detroit and is being held awaiting trial. As with any high-threat trial in federal court, the Judiciary works closely with local and federal officials as appropriate to provide a safe and secure venue for the proceedings.
The Judiciary’s fiscal year 2011 budget request includes $22 million for security, juror expenses, and court appointed defense counsel costs associated with high-threat trials. We will work closely with the Committee to refine this estimate once we have a better understanding of the number and location of high-threat trials that will take place in federal court.
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FBI Director Robert Mueller was on the defensive again on Capitol Hill Wednesday as members of a House panel questioned him about the treatment of the alleged Christmas Day bomber.
The House Appropriations Commerce, Justice and science subcommittee was the third congressional panel to ask Mueller about his bureau’s decisions in the aftermath of an attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to bomb a Detroit-bound airliner. (Read our reports on Mueller’s previous congressional testimonies here and here.)
Republicans have been critical of the decision to read Abdulmutallab his Miranda rights and treat him like a civilian after he was first interrogated. They allege that valuable intelligence may have been lost by not handling him like an enemy combatant.
GOP members have said some of their concerns could have been avoided if specialists were dispatched to Detroit to handle the case before Abdulmutallab was advised of his rights. On Wednesday, the FBI director said he would have preferred to have experts flown in to handle Abdulmutallab, but he said there were qualified agents in place to work immediately.
“One of the things that I do think is lost in some of this is that we have to make decisions relatively quickly in order to maximize the opportunity to get information and intelligence,” Mueller said.
Rep. Frank Wolf of Virginia, the ranking Republican on the subcommittee, commended the efforts of the FBI agents who handled Abdulmutallab, but said FBI experts should have been brought to Detroit.
“As great as they may very well be, they were not the best people in the nation at that time to interrogate the Christmas Day bomber because they were on vacation,” Wolf said. “They were celebrating the birth of Christ Jesus on Christmas Day.”
Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), the panel chairman, lauded the FBI for how it treated Abdulmutallab.
“I would like to think that much of the current criticisms and misrepresentations are just the result of some misunderstandings about what has taken place in this case,” Mollohan said. “The fact of the matter is the FBI has made it clear that it has … knowledgeable agents to question Abdulmutallab.”
Mueller appeared before the subcommittee Thursday as part of the panel’s review of the FBI’s fiscal year 2011 budget. The FBI budget request calls for $8.3 billion to carry out its mission and support almost 34,000 employees.
Read Mueller’s full testimony here.
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Attorney General Eric Holder’s critics have turned to a friend-of-the-court brief he signed in 2004, espousing the view that the danger of a too-powerful Executive Branch outweighs the risk of losing intelligence in terrorism cases prosecuted in civilian courts. (h/t Politico)
The brief, filed in the case of Jose Padilla, argued that the president does not have the authority to imprison a U.S. citizen indefinitely and without access to counsel or courts. Padilla, suspected of plotting a dirty bomb attack, was detained as material witness in May 2002 and shunted into military custody about a month later. (He was later removed to the criminal justice system, prosecuted and was convicted in 2007 of conspiracy to murder, kidnap and maim people and two counts of providing material support to terrorists.)
Two of Holder’s most prominent critics from the Bush administration, former Deputy White House Counsel Bill Burck and Press Secretary Dana Perino, highlighted the brief in this March 10 story in the National Review. The brief adds a new wrinkle in the debate over the Obama administration’s handling of the so-called Christmas Day bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, while providing Holder’s adversaries another peg for criticism: Holder did not report the brief on his Senate questionnaire despite a requirement to do so.
Justice Department spokesman Matthew Miller told Politico that “the brief should have been disclosed,” but had been “ unfortunately and inadvertently” left out in the documents submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee before Holder’s confirmation hearings.
“In any event, the Attorney General has publicly discussed his positions on detention policy on many occasions, including at his confirmation hearings,” Miller said.
That is unlikely to be the last word on the subject. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), the ranking member of the judiciary committee, issued a statement Thursday morning saying he was “deeply concerned” about the lapse.
“Not only was the Attorney General required to provide the brief as part of his confirmation, but the opinions expressed in it go to the heart of his responsibilities in matters of national security,” Sessions said. “This is an extremely serious matter and the Attorney General will have to address it immediately.”
The Obama administration has argued vigorously that placing bombing suspect Abdulmutallab in the custody of the FBI in no way limited intelligence-gathering efforts. Agents read the 23-year-old Nigerian his Miranda rights after about an hour of questioning, and he went silent.
Republicans argued he should have been transferred to to military custody and interrogated without benefit of the right to remain silent. The administration has countered that the suspect has begun cooperating with authorities and has provided a valuable stream of intelligence ever since.
The brief in the Padilla case said that the civilian justice system may pose obstacles to detention or intelligence-gathering, but that such risks represent “an inherent consequence of the limitation of Executive power.”
The NRO piece breaks out the key passage:
[We] recognize that these limitations might impede the investigation of a terrorist offense in some circumstances. It is conceivable that, in some hypothetical situation, despite the array of powers described above, the government might be unable to detain a dangerous terrorist or to interrogate him or her effectively. But this is an inherent consequence of the limitation of Executive power. No doubt many other steps could be taken that would increase our security, and could enable us to prevent terrorist attacks that might otherwise occur. But our Nation has always been prepared to accept some risk as the price of guaranteeing that the Executive does not have arbitrary power to imprison citizens.
Read the full brief below.
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FBI Terrorist Screening Center Director Timothy Healy, who oversees the terrorist watch list, told members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Wednesday that his office is well on its way to carrying out a presidential request to address weaknesses that led to the attempted airline bombing on Christmas Day.
President Barack Obama asked the TSC to thoroughly examine the Terrorist Screening Database, which is commonly known as the terrorist watch list, to determine the current visa status of suspected or known terrorists. He also asked the TSC to work with other intelligence agencies to draw up recommendations on whether there should be changes to how people are watch-listed.
Healy said the TSC has finished its review of the Terrorist Screening Database and expects recommendations on the watch list “very soon.” Since the attempted bombing, the no-fly list, which is a subset of the database, has almost doubled from about 3,400 people to about 6,000 people, USA Today reported Wednesday.
“We have a standing commitment to improve our operational processes, to enhance our human capital and increase our technological capabilities, and to continue to protect Americans from terrorist threats while protecting civil liberties and protecting privacy issues,” Healy said.
The Senate panel is holding a series of hearings on the effectiveness of government intelligence systems after Sept. 11, 2001. Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) said the attempted terrorist attack by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab on Dec. 25 have “added significance” to the hearings.
“The Abdulmutallab case … exposed weaknesses, I think, in our watch listing system,” Lieberman said. “Our intelligence agencies obviously need to view some of the tips and fingerpointing with … skepticism as informants may be motivated by spite or rivalry.” But he said “it is just unacceptable that, in this case, Abdulmutallab’s father, a respected business leader in Nigeria, was not considered a credible enough source for his information to put his son on the watch list without corroborating evidence.”
Healy said there isn’t a “black and white system” for identifying terrorists.
“There is no driver’s license bureau where [Osama] Bin Laden goes to get his terrorist card,” he said.
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The new U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan is getting ready to crack the whip in her Detroit-based office, the Detroit Free Press reported yesterday.
U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade, who was sworn into office early last month, told the newspaper that improving the efficiency of her 108-employee office is one of her top priorities.
“We have a number of seasoned, experienced lawyers in the office, but many of them have been around for a very long time, and we get into sort of complacent habits,” McQuade told the Free Press. The “we” applies to her as well: She has worked in the office since 1998.
The Detroit-based U.S. Attorney said she is considering dividing up office divisions that have “grown too big” and giving more staffers managerial responsibilities, according to the newspaper. Last week, she shook up the office by making several changes to her office’s leadership.
“We’ve sort of promoted people for life, and then they sort of sit there, and although they have a lot to offer, we haven’t tried new ideas because people have been occupying the same places for a long time,” McQuade told the Free Press. “I think giving people different opportunities to lead and share their ideas is very important.”
McQuade told the newspaper that she made up her mind that she wanted to be U.S. Attorney when she wasn’t promoted to criminal division chief for the Eastern District office in 2008. She then met with local lawyers, judges and politicians to gather their opinions on the office, according to the newspaper. They told her that Eastern District of Michigan U.S. Attorney’s Office was having a productivity problem, the Free Press said.
Then-U.S. Attorney candidate McQuade presented a plan to address office output to a U.S. Attorney screening panel, according to the newspaper. A member of the committee told the Free Press that’s McQuade’s decision to make a plan was “virtually unheard of.”
Although addressing office productivity is important, McQuade also told the newspaper that fighting violent crime, terrorism and public corruption are priorities.
Her office is handling the case against Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who allegedly hid explosives in his underwear in a failed attempt to bomb Northwest Airlines Flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit. The office also is prosecuting a public corruption case involving former Detroit City Council member Monica Conyers, who is married to Democratic House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers of Michigan.
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We recently wrote about the Attorney General’s communication strategy over the past several weeks, as Republican criticisms of his national security decisions intensified. Holder’s approach had been very low-key — to a fault, his supporters told us — until about two weeks ago, when the Attorney General wrote a pointed letter to Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) defending his decision to charge the alleged Christmas Day bomber in the criminal justice system.
The New York Times today has a story that sheds more light on Holder’s messaging since his November announcement that the self-proclaimed mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and four other alleged conspirators would be tried in federal court in Manhattan. The plan crumbled in the face of intense criticism, but Holder never reemerged to explain himself — by White House design.
The Times reports:
The White House, wanting to move on quickly, overruled Mr. Holder’s request for more public appearances to explain the decision, administration officials said. In the resulting vacuum, critics denounced the civilian trial plan as a soft-on-terror capitulation to liberals.
Two weeks ago, probably just before the Feb. 3 letter to McConnell, Holder met with White House advisers “to discuss how to unite against common foes,” as the Times describes the meeting. The advisers agreed to let Holder speak out more — as we noted, he has not appeared on a Sunday talk show since his confirmation and has given few extended interviews, until this point — and Holder agreed to allow the White House to help sharpen his message.
Holder told the Times in an interview last week that the political attacks were “starting to constrain my ability to function as attorney general.”
“I have to do a better job in explaining the decisions that I have made,” he said, adding, “I have to be more forceful in advocating for why I believe these are trials that should be held on the civilian side.”
The Times story begins with an anecdote that highlights Holder’s shifting views of his role as department spokesman. (It also touches on his strained relationship with David Ogden, who stepped down as Holder’s deputy this month.)
After Holder gave a speech last year calling the United States a “nation of cowards” for avoiding discussions on race, President Obama distanced himself the remark. But his advisers went much further. According to the Times:
Rahm Emanuel and Jim Messina, the White House chief and deputy chief of staff, proposed installing a minder alongside Mr. Holder to prevent further gaffes — someone with better “political antennae,” as one administration official put it.
When he heard of the proposal at a White House meeting, Mr. Holder fumed; soon after, he confronted his deputy, David W. Ogden, who knew of the plan but had not alerted his boss, according to several officials. Mr. Holder fought off the proposal, signaling that his job was about the law, not political messaging.
His most important plan — to try Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the self-described architect of the Sept. 11 attacks, in federal court in Manhattan — collapsed before it even began, after support from the public and local officials withered.
A year later, he is no longer so certain.
It appears we’ll be seeing a lot more of the Attorney General.
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The Democratic chairs of the Senate Judiciary and intelligence committees told President Barack Obama today they support Attorney General Eric Holder’s handling of terrorism suspects.
Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the Judiciary panel chairman, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, who chairs the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said they disagree with the barrage of recent criticism of the Attorney General and the Obama administration over decisions on terrorism cases.
“We should not let partisan distractions lead us to cast aside such valuable tools as the experienced terrorism interrogators of the FBI or forego convicting terrorists in our Federal courts,” the senators wrote in a joint letter to the president.
For months, Republicans have condemned Holder’s decision to try self-proclaimed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four alleged coconspirators in a New York City federal court, arguing a military tribunal is a better forum. Democrats last month joined the criticism after New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (R) raised concerns about the costs and disruptions to Lower Manhattan of a lengthy trial requiring high security.
Republicans have also been upset over the decision to treat alleged Christmas Day airplane bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab as a civilian and allow the FBI to read him the Nigerian national his Miranda rights after a brief interrogation. Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.), Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin have suggested Holder resign over the issue.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) introduced legislation earlier this month that would prohibit the Justice Department from using funds to prosecute KSM and his alleged accomplices in federal court. The bill has 27 co-sponsors, including Democratic Sens. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Jim Webb of Virginia, all of whom represent conservative-leaning states. Independent Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who caucuses with the Democrats, also is a co-sponsor.
Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) introduced a companion bill in the House earlier this month. The bill has 49 co-sponsors, including Democratic Reps. Jason Altmire of Pennsylvania, Dan Boren of Oklahoma and Bobby Bright of Alabama.
“Congress should not tie the hands of our national security and law enforcement agencies, but should instead ensure they have the flexibility to use every means available,” Leahy and Feinstein said in their letter. “Congress should be working with you in a shared mission to most effectively protect our national security and to ensure that just convictions, once obtained, will be sustained and upheld.”
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Sen. Christopher “Kit” Bond (R-Mo.) today became the second Senate Republican and third prominent conservative to suggest that Attorney General Eric Holder should resign over his decisions on terrorism cases.
Conservatives have been critical of the administration’s decision to charge the alleged Christmas Day attempted airline bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, in federal court as a criminal rather than put him in military custody for interrogation.
Bond said yesterday that John Brennan, President Obama’s chief homeland security and counterterrorism adviser, “needs to go” because of his role in the events surrounding the decision on how to handle alleged bomber.
And today, Bond told The Wall Street Journal’s Washington Wire blog, “I think Eric Holder has been totally wrong, and he should go too. It’s a question of trust,” adding: “They [Holder and Brennan] both came up short.”
Bond also took a dig at Holder for the Attorney General’s decision to try five alleged 9/11 plotters in a New York City federal court. The terrorism suspects will now likely be tried elsewhere after immense criticism from local politicians and members of Congress.
“Eric Holder said the 9/11 trial in New York will be the defining moment of his tenure,” Bond told the Washington Wire. “I hope it is.”
The White House has supported its national security leaders, according to the blog. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs earlier this week called on Bond to apologize for his barbs, the Washington Wire said.