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FBI chief defends handling of Christmas case

- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 18, 2010

FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III on Wednesday defended his bureau's handling of the Christmas airline bombing attempt, insisting agents in Detroit moved quickly to protect lives. The suspect, he added, has been cooperating after his arrest.

Mr. Mueller, testifying before a House Appropriations subcommittee, said Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab has been providing agents with information. Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian, is accused of trying to detonate a bomb hidden in his underwear on a flight from Amsterdam.

The Obama administration has come under attack from Republicans over the case. GOP lawmakers contend the suspect should have been placed in military custody as a terrorist, and not advised of his right to remain silent under U.S. law.

Mr. Mueller said that following Abdulmutallab's arrest and first court appearance he has been cooperating, in part because his family persuaded him to do so.

The federal defender's office in Detroit, which is representing Abdulmutallab, had no immediate comment.

Rep. Frank R. Wolf, Virginia Republican, said he would like to have seen a separate team of interrogation experts brought into Detroit to handle the questioning, rather than the local terrorism task force agents.

"They were not the best people that we had in the nation at that time to interrogate the Christmas Day bomber," Mr. Wolf said.

Mr. Mueller defended the actions of the investigators who responded to the attempt. He said that to have waited for an out-of-town expert to fly into Detroit on Christmas would have lost a valuable opportunity to get intelligence information.

"One has to make decisions relatively quickly in order to maximize the opportunity to get that intelligence," Mr. Mueller said.

Senior administration officials insist they obtained valuable intelligence in the first day's questioning of the suspect. Republicans have charged that the Obama administration, by keeping Abdulmutallab in the criminal justice system, missed an opportunity to get more information by transferring him to military custody.

The Christmas terror case has already altered U.S. policy in a number of areas: The U.S. tightened air-screening measures; suspended transfers of detainees from the military facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to Yemen, where Abdulmutallab was allegedly trained; and revamped information-sharing among counterintelligence analysts.