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Lapses hurt intelligence effort after failed jet attack

The Nigerian suspect saw a lawyer too soon, a U.S. official says, and an interrogation opportunity was lost.

January 21, 2010|By Greg Miller

Reporting from Washington — In a tacit admission that the U.S. squandered a chance to gain valuable information after the failed Christmas Day airliner bombing, the nation's intelligence director testified Wednesday that authorities had been too quick to read the suspect his Miranda rights and grant him access to an attorney.

Dennis C. Blair said that a newly created team of elite interrogators should have been called in to question Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, and that top officials in Washington should have been consulted. The director of national intelligence also acknowledged that there had been a number of blunders in the handling of intelligence data that kept authorities from preventing the incident.

Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian, is accused of attempting to bomb a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.

In testimony before the Senate Homeland Security Committee, Blair said that the interrogation group "was created exactly for this purpose. . . . We did not invoke [its use] in this case. We should have."

Blair attributed the breakdown in part to a failure last year among those who set up the unit to envision scenarios in which the team might be used to question someone captured in the United States.

"Frankly, we were thinking more of overseas people," Blair said. "And, duh. . . . The decision was made on the scene." Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said it was a costly mistake.

"We know that those interrogations can provide critical intelligence," she said. "But the protections afforded by our civil justice system . . . encourage terrorists to lawyer up. I'm told that with Abdulmutallab, once he was 'Mirandized' and received civilian lawyers . . . he stopped answering questions."

Collins and other lawmakers also questioned the decision to try Abdulmutallab in a civilian court rather than move him into military custody to face a tribunal. Abdulmutallab has pleaded not guilty to various charges in federal court in Detroit.

Blair said in a statement afterward that his testimony had been misconstrued and that the FBI indeed had interrogated Abdulmutallab and "received important intelligence at that time." But he and other top U.S. counter-terrorism officials -- including Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III -- testified that they were never consulted on the decision to give Abdulmutallab access to an attorney or be advised of his right to remain silent.

The disclosure came as a parade of top national security officials made their first public appearances on Capitol Hill to explain how the Nigerian penetrated the nation's defenses and might have succeeded in bringing down a packed airliner had he not been subdued by other passengers after his explosives failed to ignite.

The officials challenged some of the criticism aimed at their agencies after the attack, but were unanimous in acknowledging that U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies had assembled more than enough information before the attack to prevent it.

Abdulmutallab "should not have stepped onto a plane," said Michael E. Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center. "The counter-terrorism system collectively failed. . . . We have to do better."

Leiter and his organization -- which was created after the Sept. 11 attacks specifically to sift through piles of intelligence data to identify and thwart terrorist plots -- have been the main targets of criticism.

But Blair was involved in the most pointed exchange of the day when Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) challenged the witnesses to explain why no members of their respective agencies had been held accountable for their failures or mistakes.

Blair sought to defuse the situation by reminding McCain of their common military heritage. Blair is a retired Navy admiral, and McCain a former Navy pilot who was held as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.

But McCain bristled when Blair described how the Navy investigates an accident at sea.

"Actually, it's been my experience, Admiral, that when the captain of the ship does something wrong or something goes wrong on his watch, the captain is relieved," McCain said.

Administration officials also confirmed some new details about the intelligence failures leading up to the Christmas Day incident. Leiter acknowledged, for example, that the United States had obtained electronic intercepts months before indicating that an individual with the partial name Umar Farouk was linked to Al Qaeda operatives in Yemen.

The National Security Agency, which collects electronic signals around the globe, also had learned that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as the Yemen-based offshoot is called, was planning an operation using a Nigerian.

Separately, Abdulmutallab's father had approached the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria to warn CIA officials there that his son might have traveled to Yemen and was espousing increasingly radical beliefs.

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