During an interview on MSNBC Thursday morning, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs defended the Obama administration’s handling of Christmas Day bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Gibbs argued that the administration was right to treat Abdulmutallab as a criminal defendant, instead of as an enemy combatant. “Just because you make somebody an enemy combatant [it] doesn’t make them talk,” Gibbs argued. He then pointed to an example from the Bush years to supposedly support his point.
“Jose Padilla was made an enemy combatant so that we could get him to talk,” Gibbs said. “And guess what happened when we made him an enemy combatant, he didn't talk. He did talk when he was transferred back into a civilian court.”
President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, made the same point on Tuesday in an op-ed for USA Today. Brennan argued: “Terrorists such as Jose Padilla and Saleh al-Mari did not cooperate when transferred to military custody, which can harden one's determination to resist cooperation.”
Brennan and Gibbs are wrong. In fact, Jose Padilla only started cooperating once he was transferred into the military’s custody and interrogated.
Jose Padilla was arrested at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport on May 8, 2002. At the time, U.S. authorities had multiple reasons to be suspicious of him. Most importantly, senior al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah had been taken into custody in late March 2002 and provided information to authorities that led to the identification of both Padilla and his would-be accomplice, Binyam Mohamed. The two were identified as al Qaeda recruits who had been tasked with a mission inside the U.S.--namely, an attack on a high-rise apartment building.
Thus, when Padilla was initially detained by the FBI in May 2002 authorities knew he was up to no good. The FBI questioned Padilla for several hours but got nowhere. A copy of the FBI’s 302 memo written after the initial questioning of Padilla shows that al Qaeda’s man gave the bureau nothing. Padilla talked about his personal history but said nothing about his real intentions or his nefarious friends.
FBI agent Russell Fincher has testified that the Bureau initially sought Padilla’s cooperation in stopping an impending al Qaeda attack. “I believed there was a terrorist act that was going to happen. I believed he had knowledge of that. I needed his help,” Fincher explained. “I didn't want to arrest him.”
The FBI even offered to put Padilla up in a hotel so they could continue their conversation. But when the agents tried to turn the conversation towards Padilla’s al Qaeda ties, he shut down the interview. “He stood up and told me the interview was over and it was time for him to go,” Fincher recalled during testimony.
Padilla was then read a Miranda warning, arrested on a material witness warrant and transferred to the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) in New York.
There he stayed for one month without giving up anything of importance to the FBI. During that time, as Bill Burck (former deputy counsel to President Bush) and Dana Perino (former press secretary to President Bush) explain at National Review Online, the Bush administration weighed its options, ultimately deciding to designate Padilla an enemy combatant. After Padilla was transferred to the brig on June 9, 2002, the leading newspapers noted the chief reason for the move: Padilla wasn’t cooperating with authorities.
“Officials said Padilla has refused to cooperate since his arrest,” the Los Angeles Times reported. The New York Times elaborated: “Officials have justified his detention [in military custody] by saying he is considered to be an enemy combatant. He has refused to cooperate with the authorities who have questioned him.”
And the Washington Post gave this summary on June 12: