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.
Based on the instructions from Washington, the second interview was conducted by different FBI agents and others with the local joint terrorism task force.
Such a move is not unusual in cases where investigators or prosecutors want to protect themselves from challenges to evidence or statements.
By bringing in a so-called "clean team" of investigators to talk to the suspect, federal officials aimed to ensure that Abdulmutallab's statements would still be admissible if the failure to give him his Miranda warning led a judge to rule out the use of his first admissions.
Even if Abdulmutallab's statements are ruled out as evidence, they still provided valuable intelligence for U.S. counterterrorism officials to pursue, officials said.
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.
In a story published last Friday, the Washington Post attempted the first rewrite, claiming that new details suggest "that Abdulmutallab, 23, clammed up even before he was informed of his right to remain silent -- a warning that could have come later had he been placed in military custody."
Their selective account, which accuses Republicans of politicizing the case, relies on a "partial chronology provided by an administration official, and supplemented by interviews with additional federal sources." The Post reported that Abdulmutallab spoke to FBI agents for 50 minutes -- consistent with the AP account. But here the chronology changes. After a 5pm teleconference among law enforcement and intelligence officials, according to the Post,
"Agents again visited Abdulmutallab about 9 p.m., finding him more combative and allegedly citing jihadist intentions. He asked for a lawyer. FBI agents then read him his rights. Abdulmutallab was charged in a criminal complaint the next day, after a meeting of the president's national security team in which the Justice Department outlined its approach."
That's a key difference. In the AP account, a clean team is sent in to Mirandize Abdulmutallab. In the Post account, Abdulmutallab asks for a lawyer on his own and "FBI agents then read him his rights."
A Los Angeles Times story from Monday includes the same two details as the Post story from Friday. "The decision to advise the accused Christmas Day attacker of his right to remain silent was made after teleconferences involving at least four government agencies -- and only after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had stopped talking to authorities, according to knowledgeable law enforcement officials." And in the LA Times piece, like the Post piece, the chronology has changed. According to the Times: "The source said that Abdulmutallab was not read his rights until he made it clear that he was not going to say anything else."
Here is the LA Times chronology:
FBI agents questioned him at the hospital for just under an hour. They did not give him the Miranda warning, which advises suspects that anything they say can be used against them at trial, citing an exemption that allows them first to seek crucial information on any pending crime.
During the questioning, one source said, Abdulmutallab suggested that other terrorism attempts were in the works. "He was making comments like, 'Others were following me.' And that is a circumstance where you've got a potential disaster, that there are others out there and you don't have to Mirandize him right away."
But the questioning stopped when doctors said they needed to sedate Abdulmutallab to treat his injuries. At that point, the sources said, the agents backed off.
"The two agents who interviewed him are very experienced counter-terrorism agents," a source said. "They've been around a long time and have traveled internationally. And the Detroit area has the largest Muslim community in the country."
When Abdulmutallab awakened, a second team of FBI agents was sent in. Authorities thought he might be willing to say even more to the second set of agents.
"We had to see if he was still willing to talk," another source said. "And it was pretty quickly apparent to them that he wasn't. He had had a change of mind. It was only after establishing that with some confidence that they decided to go ahead and Mirandize him."
Three different accounts. Which one is more plausible? The Washington Post story fails to mention that the second interview was to have involved a fresh team of interrogators.
That's a huge detail to leave out -- either the Post reporters (three of them) didn't know it or they chose to omit it because it ran counter to the pro-administration storyline they were peddling (and with Walter Pincus sharing a byline, that's always a distinct possibility). Whatever the explanation, it does not inspire confidence.
The LA Times story does include the fact that it was a second team that attempted to talk to Abdulmutallab after his medical treatment. But they give no explanation as to why the FBI would replace a team with whom Abdulmutallab had felt comfortable enough to talk openly for 50 minutes, claiming that "authorities thought he might be willing to say even more to the second set of agents." Why did authorities believe this? If the initial interrogation was as successful as numerous administration officials have since claimed, why would "authorities" make any changes to the interrogation process that might result in Abdulmutallab feeling less comfortable or being less forthcoming? The LA Times account leaves us wondering.
The AP story -- the first and most thorough -- provides the obvious answer: the second team of FBI agents was a "clean team," sent in with the express purpose of Mirandizing Abdulmutallab so that his statements might be used by prosecutors.
And as noted, three sources familiar with Abdulmutallab's interrogations tell TWS that is exactly what happened. It will be interesting to see how the story is told at the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Tuesday. Dennis Blair and Leon Panetta sit atop bureaucracies that are not at all happy about the opportunities missed to gain valuable intelligence after Abdulmutallab was Mirandized. If Blair and Panetta voice the administration line -- that nothing much more would have been learned -- they risk further alienating an intelligence community that is increasingly bitter about its treatment by the Obama administration and, in particular, Attorney General Eric Holder.
A final note. This quote has to go down as the worst attempt at spin since the Abdulmutallab story broke on Christmas Day. In describing the agents who first questioned Abdulmutallab, a source told the LA Times: "They've been around a long time and have traveled internationally."
As one wry observer remarked: If those are the qualifications for an interrogator these days, half of the flight attendants for Northwest Airlines could have been called in to talk to Abdulmutallab.