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Abdulmutallab's Encounter With the "Clean Team"

Before being Mirandized, he was singing like a canary.

8:11 PM, Jan 23, 2010 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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The Associated Press has a fascinating blow-by-blow account of the interrogation of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab that adds several new details to previous reports on his handling. Overall, however, this news does not change the disturbing picture of the reflexive, law-enforcement-first approach the Obama administration took with the al Qaeda operative. And with the new details come new troubling questions.

Abdulmutallab's Encounter With the "Clean Team"

The story tells us that Abdulmutallab was Mirandized approximately 10 hours after he was taken into custody. Before then, he received medical attention and was interrogated twice. The first interrogation was conducted by local FBI agents and included a Customs and Border Protection official and an agent from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. The first interview lasted 50 minutes, and Abdulmutallab reportedly talked freely. The second interview, five hours later, the FBI used a "clean team" that included elements of local joint terrorism task force.  The second interrogation yielded nothing.  When Abdulmutallab was Mirandized, he stopped cooperating altogether.

The story is fascinating both for what is in it and for what is not.  Nowhere in the detailed narrative do we learn about contact with intelligence officials in Washington. And several senior counterterrorism officials testified in Congress on Wednesday that they were not consulted about the interrogation process.

TWS reported that the FBI officials who interrogated Abdulmutallab did not draw on the many pieces of intelligence that had been collected by the US intelligence community over the previous several months.


The bottom line: Abdulmutallab's cooperation was limited to a 50-minute preliminary interview conducted by local agents as he waited for pain meds and more treatment. The second interview produced nothing and he has exercised his newfound right to remain silent ever since.

Given what we know about Abdulmutallab's activities and the four months he spent in Yemen with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, it is incredible that he was Mirandized after talking for just 50 minutes. Anything the FBI asked him -- without the benefit of the intelligence in possession of the USG at the time -- would have necessarily only elicited general responses.

Intelligence is an iterative process. Successful interrogations -- especially ones that do not rely on the now-disallowed "enhanced interrogation techniques" -- require time. Interrogators need to use pieces of information they have to generate new information.  They often do their best to convince their subjects that they know more than they actually do so that the subjects believe that they are providing only old information and not being helpful.  To do this requires having some information to start that process.  And that did not happen in this case.

The White House has claimed that Abdulmutallab provided "useable, actionable" intelligence in that 50 minute interrogation.  And there will no doubt be claims in the coming days that we squeezed the sponge dry -- that we got everything from him that was gettable.

And indeed, the AP story reports: "The suspect spoke openly, said one official, talking in detail about what he'd done and the planning that went into the attack. Other counterterrorism officials speaking on condition of anonymity said it was during this questioning that he admitted he had been trained and instructed in the plot by al-Qaida operatives in Yemen."

If Abdulmutallab provided such valuable intelligence on AQAP and its role in his attack in just 50 minutes, why would the Justice Department allow him to be Mirandized.  And why, three days after Abdulmutallab gave his interrogators such detailed information on the attack, did the president say three days later that he was an "isolated extremist?"

The story ends this this way.

In the end, though, the "clean team" of interrogators did not prod more revelations from the suspect. Having rested and received more extensive medical treatment, Abdulmutallab was told of his right to remain silent and right to have an attorney. He remained silent.

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