Holder defends decision to try Christmas Day terror suspect in civilian court

Attorney General Eric Holder on Wednesday said he decided to charge the Christmas Day terror suspect in civilian rather than military court.

In a letter to Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Holder said he informed other relevant departments of the government and received no objections from them.

He said the FBI informed its “relevant partners in the Intelligence Community” on the evening of the Dec. 25 and the following morning that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab would be charged criminally and “no agency objected to this course of action.”

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“In the days following December 25 – including during a meeting with the president and other senior members of his national security team on January 5 – high-level discussions ensued within the administration in which the possibility of detaining Mr. Abdulmutallab under the law of war was explicitly discussed,” he wrote. “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.”

The letter is the latest attempt by the administration to push back against charges from Republicans that the arrest of the attempted bombing suspect was a grave mistake that squandered the opportunity to garner more intelligence.

It comes less than a day after senior administration officials disclosed that the suspect had started talking again to interrogators after going silent the night of his arrest once FBI officials read him his Miranda rights.

Holder also pointed out that since the Sept. 11th attacks, authorities have followed the practice, first established by the Bush administration, of arresting and detaining under federal criminal law all terrorist suspects who are apprehended on U.S. soil.

For example, the Bush administration used the criminal justice system to convict more than 300 individuals on terrorism-related charges, including shoe-bomber Richard Reid, a British citizen was arrested in December 2001 for attempting to ignite a shoe bomb while on a flight from Paris to Miami carrying nearly 200 passengers.

FBI Director Robert Mueller testified Tuesday that FBI agents continued interrogating Abdulmutallab until he entered surgery. He was not advised of his Miranda right to remain silent until after he emerged from surgery and made clear that he was not going to cooperate with any more questioning.

“Neither advising Abdulmutallab of his Miranda rights nor granting him access to counsel prevents us from obtaining intelligence from him,” Holder wrote. “On the contrary, history shows that the federal justice systems is an extremely effective tool for gathering intelligence.”

Republican critics have said the suspect should have been treated as an enemy combatant and interrogated without access to an attorney.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the ranking member of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, questioned Holder’s assertion that intelligence agencies were consulted about interrogating and Mirandizing Abdulmutallab on Christmas Day when Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and National Counterterrorism Director Michael Leiter all recently testified before the panel that they were not contacted about the matter that day.

Collins also pointed out that top intelligence officials met to discuss the matter on Jan. 5, 11 days after the attempted attack and after Abdulmutallab was already read his Miranda rights.

“That is a critical point in this event because that decision caused Abdulmutallab to stop cooperating with authorities for several weeks,” her office pointed out in an eight-point response to Holder’s letter.

Republican aides also were struck by Holder’s continued assertion that the Bush administration prosecuted hundreds of suspected terrorists who are now serving time in Supermax prisons throughout the U.S.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) have sent a total of five letters to Holder since late May 2009 asking him to verify these numbers, by providing the names, offenses and locations of these terrorists.

Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee sent Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) a letter on Wednesday urging him to call Holder before the committee to answer a series of detainee-related questions.

Other Republicans said the letter did not answer key questions and continued to urge Holder to testify before the panel. They also pointed out that Holder, in highlighting the shoebomber case’s prosecution in federal court, failed to mention that military commissions had yet to be established.

Sen. George LeMieux (R-Fla.) fired off one of the first responses, ridiculing Holder’s decision to treat Abdulmutallab as a civilian defendant.

“This revelation that it was the attorney general who made the call to try an enemy combatant in our civil court system begs the question, who is running our War on Terror?” he said.

The letter did not address questions raised about excessive recidivism rates of former Guantanamo Bay detainees who went through a terrorist rehabilitation program in Saudi Arabia, the status of the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group and why it wasn’t consulted on Christmas Day, and the failure to consult other officials before deciding to Mirandize Abdulmutallab.

In a hearing earlier this month, Blair suggested that Abdulmutallab should have been treated as a high-value terror suspect when the plane landed, which would have triggered questioning by special interrogators rather than civilian law officers.

At a House Armed Service Committee hearing on Wednesday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a former CIA director, was asked whether he thought the intelligence community gained as much information as it could have by reading the suspect his Miranda rights after 50 minutes of interrogation Christmas Day.

“No, I don’t,” Gates responded.

Leahy said he has been working with Holder to confirm a date for an oversight hearing with Holder. He also said he had not heard from Republicans before receiving the letter.

“Had you discussed this matter with me, you might have realized that such a partisan and divisive letter was unnecessary and unhelpful,” Leahy scolded. “I hope that in the weeks and months ahead, instead of trying to create division and score political points, you and the other Republican members of the committee will join with me and work with the administration on behalf of the American people, as we did after the 9/11 attacks.”

This story was updated at 6:41 p.m.