Holder insists Times Square bomber came under heavy questioning

Attorney General Eric Holder on Thursday told a Senate panel that Times Square terror suspect Faisal Shahzad was questioned extensively before he was read his Miranda rights.

Holder, who came under bipartisan criticism during the panel hearing over the handling of the arrest, said agents made use of a “public safety exception” that allows terrorism suspects to be questioned before being given their Miranda warnings that allow them the right to remain silent.

Agents used the same exception in December with the failed Detroit airline bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. While Abdulmutallab was questioned for an hour, Holder said Shahzad was interviewed to a far greater extent.

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Holder said the exception was established by the Supreme Court under former Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

“With regard to Shahzad, the questioning under the public safety exception far exceeded the amount of time we had with Mr. Abdulmutallab,” Holder said in response to questions from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) at an appropriations subcommittee hearing on the Justice Department's Fiscal Year 2011 budget request.

“We really made use of that exception to elicit a very substantial amount of information from him before the decision was made to give him his Miranda warning.”

Republicans worried the administration is not getting enough information from terrorism suspects have criticized officials for reading Miranda rights to Shahzad, a U.S. citizen, and Abdulmutallab. They argue vital information about terrorist links could be lost as a result.

Holder wouldn’t specify precisely how long Shahzad was questioned. He said public reports have said Abdulmutallab was questioned for one hour, but did not correct Feinstein when she suggested a period of three to four hours.

The “public safety exception” that exists, Holder said, allows agents to delay Mirandizing suspects, although the allowable length of that delay has not been defined by courts.

“It allows a police officer or a federal agent to question a suspect, a potential defendant, a terrorist, in order to protect public safety to ask questions like ‘Are you acting alone?’ ‘Are there other bombs we need to be worried about?’ ‘Are there other people flying in who are going to be helping you?’ Things to ensure the public safety. We’re allowed to ask those questions without giving Miranda warnings.

“With regard to Abdulmutallab and also with regard to Shahzad, we made extensive use of the public safety exception before the decision was made to give them their Miranda warnings,” he said.

Holder said while there is no legally defined maximum amount of time allowed under the exception, he was confident that Shahzad's attorneys would be unable to have the questioning ruled unconstitutional.

“As long as you are asking appropriate questions, probing about public safety, I think courts are generally going to be supportive,” he said.

The attorney general defended the government’s handling of the case from bipartisan criticism.

“Why was the suspect not apprehended until the jet had pulled away from the gate?” asked Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who grilled Holder about how Shahzad had been allowed to get on a plane headed to Dubai in the first place.

She said the incident sparked concerns about a lack of communications among law enforcement agencies.

Holder acknowledged he was unsatisfied with how agents handled the case, but noted that the Transportation Safety Agency has already trimmed the amount of time that airlines must check their no-fly lists, from 12 hours to two. He also said Shahzad was not a danger to other passengers on the plane.

Subcommittee chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) noted that President Barack Obama was "volcanic" in December, when the federal no-fly list failed to detect Abdulmutallab.

“There should have been a significant, kind of red alert,” said Mikulski. She complained the watchlist seemed “dysfunctional.”

Holder insisted changes were already being made and that authorities learn from each experience. He also said he was never worried about apprehending Shahzad given surveillance video and advance notice that was given to the airports about the attempted bomber.

Shahzad ultimately was grabbed before he left the country, Holder said.

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