By Susan Crabtree and J. Taylor Rushing - 05/06/10 10:00 AM EDT
The top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee do not know how authorities questioned Faisal Shahzad, the suspected Times Square car bomber.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who chairs the Intelligence panel, and ranking Republican Sen. Kit Bond (Mo.) both said it was unclear whether a special interrogation team for high-value suspects known as the High-Value Interrogation Group (HIG) was involved in questioning Shahzad after his removal from an airplane Sunday and subsequent arrest.
While most lawmakers have hailed the work of local authorities in quickly arresting Shahzad, the latest attempted terrorist attack has unleashed new attacks from Republicans on the administration’s efforts to combat terrorism, as well as a fierce defense by Democrats.
Members were unsettled earlier this year to learn the HIG, created by President Barack Obama in 2009, had not been used in the arrest of failed Christmas Day bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and was not operational at the time.
The HIG was intended to help determine whether suspects should have their Miranda rights read, an issue that came up in the arrests of the Christmas Day bomber and Shahzad. In both cases, the suspects were read their rights.
“If the HIG is involved, I do not know that,” Feinstein said in reference to Shahzad. “I didn’t ask the question. It’s my fault.”
Bond said “it’s unclear at the moment” whether the HIG was used because he has not been given a “full description” of Shahzad’s questioning. Bond, an outspoken opponent of the administration’s national security policies, said his briefing was limited to 10 minutes on Tuesday because the intelligence official providing it had another commitment afterward.
In Senate testimony on the Christmas Day bomber earlier this year, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair said the HIG had been created to determine whether a person detailed “should be treated as a case for federal prosecution or for some of the other means.”
“We did not invoke the HIG in this case. We should have,” he continued. “That is what we will do now, and so we need to make those decisions more carefully. I was not consulted. The decision was made on the scene. It seemed logical to the people there, but it should have been taken using this HIG format at a higher level.”
Republicans seized on the comments as evidence that the FBI squandered invaluable and timely intelligence by reading Abdulmutallab his Miranda rights, after which he stopped talking to authorities for five weeks before he again began to respond to questioning.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) was among several Republicans who complained that the administration appears to have a “mindset” on treating terrorism suspects with civilian rights.
“That’s the biggest problem of the administration — they’re still confused about whether we’re at war with Islamic extremists or whether we’re just in the business of catching and prosecuting common criminals. Hence, they keep wanting to Mirandize these people, which includes, of course, the right to remain silent. The last thing we want them to do is remain silent. We want them to talk.”
Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), a former California attorney general, echoed Cornyn. “I think the administration has a fetish about Mirandizing and using the domestic justice system when our country is at war,” he said.
Several Democrats and even GOP Rep. Mark Kirk (Ill.), who serves as an intelligence officer in the Naval Reserves and is running for Senate, defended the administration’s decision to Mirandize Shahzad because he is a U.S. citizen and must be afforded certain constitutional rights.
“He should be formally charged with treason,” Kirk said. “The legal situation is fairly clear when you’re dealing with a U.S. citizen.”
Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), a senior member of the House Intelligence Committee, said she hadn’t attended a Tuesday briefing about the car bomber and so did not know whether the HIG was used. She also assailed Republicans for using the attempted bombing as an opportunity to criticize the administration’s policies.
“Anyone who wants to complain about [Mirandizing] is someone who wants to politicize the situation and is probably someone who doesn’t understand the Constitution,” she remarked.
Bond argues that the administration got lucky with Shahzad because the bomber was incompetent and used the wrong kind of fertilizer. The intelligence community needs to answer some key questions that he and other members of the committee have that remain unanswered, Bond said, such as whether they were aware of this terrorist’s activities in Pakistan and why authorities read Shahzad his Miranda rights.
Getting those answers is essential to determining whether the administration has learned lessons from the Christmas Day bomber attack, Bond argues. He also believes any terrorist who tries to kill Americans and has connections overseas should first be interrogated and treated as an intelligence source.
“Finding possibly lifesaving intelligence should be our first priority,” his spokeswoman explained. “Prosecution should be secondary.”
The strong emotions on both sides of the debate, as well as general confusion over the administration’s interrogation policies, provided another opportunity for Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) to push a pet initiative. Graham, a key author of the military commission acts of 2006 and 2009, would like to establish a special national security court system to address such thorny legal issues involving terrorism cases.
“We need a law that would allow you to go to a judge somewhere, like a [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court] judge, and hold a suspect like this — and, working with the intelligence officials of this country to gather intelligence, then make a good prosecutorial decision,” he said Wednesday. “I don’t think it’s smart for us to say that the homeland is not part of the battlefield. You get to America, you get a much better deal?”