In the five weeks since the Christmas Day attack on Flight 253, the Obama administration has come under tremendous scrutiny for its mishandling of al Qaeda operative, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. At first the criticism focused on the many intelligence lapses that allowed Abdulmutallab on the plane. In recent weeks, most of the attention has been on the gross incompetence of the Obama administration in the aftermath of those attacks -- from the general ignorance of top administration national security officials such as Janet Napolitano to the failure of the administration to have set up any mechanism to interrogate high-value detainees.
But nothing has drawn more criticism than the decision to read Miranda rights to Abdulmutallab after just 50 minutes of questioning by local FBI officials. That attention is much deserved. By mirandizing the al Qaeda operative, law enforcement officials closed a window into the increasingly dangerous al Qaeda franchise in Yemen -- al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The U.S. government knows relatively little about the group, which consists of several hundred terrorists and is led by a team that includes two former Guantanamo Bay detainees. Top White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan acknowledged that he was surprised the group was targeting the U.S. homeland and could send its operatives here. We should want to know more about AQAP and by mirandizing Abdulmutallab the Obama administration has chosen to know less.
Until the past several days, the administration has largely avoided responding to critics, choosing instead to offer half-hearted (and entirely unserious) claims about the 50 minutes of interrogation time that Abdulmutallab did provide. (In successive weekends, Robert Gibbs and David Axelrod have suggested that in 50 minutes, U.S. interrogators, without the benefit any background intelligence on Abdulmutallab, got everything they could get out of him. As noted, unserious.)
But in two recent articles -- one Friday, one Monday -- administration officials have attempted to reframe the narrative of the events that led up to -- and followed -- their foolish decision. They did so presumably to get ahead of Tuesday's Senate Intelligence Committee "threats" hearing, in which three top national security officials will have to answer questions about the Christmas Day attack.
The most notable change in the story now coming from the administration concerns when and why Abdulmutallab was mirandized. In the early versions of the story, Abdulmutallab spoke freely to law enforcement officials until they read him his Miranda rights. Then, he shut up. Three sources familiar with the interrogations tell TWS that this chronology is accurate.
This is how AP reporter Devlin Barrett rendered the chronology in the most exhaustive account published to date:
Shortly after 3:30 p.m., FBI agents began interviewing the suspect in his hospital room, joined by a CBP officer and an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent.
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.
The interview lasted about 50 minutes. Before they began questioning
Abdulmutallab, the FBI agents decided not to give him his Miranda warnings providing his right to remain silent...
Abdulmutallab's interview ended when the suspect was given medication and the investigators decided it would be better to let the effects of the drugs wear off before pressing him further.
He would not be questioned again for more than five hours. By that point, officials said, FBI bosses in Washington had decided a new interrogation team was needed. They made that move in case the lack of a Miranda warning or the suspect's medical condition at the time of the earlier conversations posed legal problems later on for prosecutors.
There was no effort to call in the elite federal High-Value Interrogation Group, a special unit of terror specialists that the Obama administration said early last year it would create to deal with terror suspects captured abroad.
Last week, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair said the unit should have been called in after Abdulmatullab's arrest. But even if federal officials wanted to expand its use to domestic cases, the special team was not ready for action, FBI Director Robert Mueller told Congress last week.