The leaders of a commission that investigated failures related to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks told a Senate panel Tuesday the Obama administration mishandled the interrogation of the failed Christmas Day airline bomber.
Former Gov. Thomas H. Kean, New Jersey Republican, and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, Indiana Democrat, said U.S. intelligence agencies should have been consulted before the bombing suspect, Nigerian national Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was granted constitutional protections under U.S. law, known as Miranda rights, and initially stopped talking to investigators.
The criticism from two of Washington’s respected former government officials comes as a bipartisan panel on Tuesday gave the Obama administration a failing grade for its efforts to date to prepare for and respond to biological-weapon terrorist attacks.
Mr. Abdulmutallab, who is now in custody, was interrogated for 50 minutes after he was pulled off of a Northwest Airlines flight after he purportedly tried to detonate a homemade explosive device sewn into his underwear.
Asked for his reaction to the fact that the intelligence community was not consulted, Mr. Kean told the Senate Homeland Security Committee, “I was shocked, and I was upset.”
The former governor said that “it made no sense whatsoever to me that, here is a man who may have trained with other people who are trying to get into this country in one way or another, who may have worked with some of the top leadership in Yemen and al Qaeda generally — and we don’t know the details of that — who may know about other plots that are pending, and we haven’t found out about them.”
Mr. Hamilton was questioned about the issues and said he agreed with Mr. Kean.
“There did not seem to be a policy of the government as to how to handle these people,” Mr. Hamilton said. “And that has to be clarified.”
Last week, Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair testified before Congress that after FBI agents apprehended the would-be Christmas Day bomber, Mr. Abdulmutallab, the agents handling the case should have referred it to a special group authorized to interrogate so-called “high-value” detainees. Some five hours later, Mr. Blair issued a statement saying his critical testimony was misconstrued and stating that the interrogation unit was not “fully operational.”
The criticism from Mr. Kean and Mr. Hamilton added to other bipartisan concerns in Congress that the White House is shifting its focus from waging war on al Qaeda in favor of a law-enforcement-oriented approach to countering terrorism.
On Monday, the chairman and ranking Republican of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent, and Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican, respectively, wrote President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, to complain about the handling of Mr. Abdulmutallab.
They stated in the letter that “the decision to treat Abdulmutallab as a criminal rather than (an unprivileged enemy belligerent) almost certainly prevented the military and the intelligence community from obtaining information that would have been critical to learning more about how our enemy operates and to preventing future attacks,” the two senators wrote.
That view is disputed by many in the administration. Mr. Brennan himself suggested earlier this month that Mr. Abdulmutallab may be cooperating through a plea bargain.
FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III last week in testimony said he supported the decisions made by his agents on the ground and could argue it both ways as to whether or not reading a suspect his Miranda rights provides incentives or disincentives to cooperate.
The critique from the heads of the 9/11 commission also came on the day another bipartisan panel released a report finding the Obama administration’s preparations for a biological terrorist attack are lacking.
The Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction, Proliferation and Terrorism said the Obama administration is not addressing urgent threats, including bioterrorism.
“Each of the last three administrations has been slow to recognize and respond to the biothreat,” said former Sen. Bob Graham, Florida Democrat and chairman of the commission. “But we no longer have the luxury of a slow learning curve, when we know al Qaeda is interested in bioweapons.”
The White House responded quickly, saying the president in his State of the Union address on Wednesday will outline a new plan for a better and quicker response to bioterrorism threats and attacks.
Retired Air Force Col. Randy Larsen, the commission’s executive director, said the government was poorly prepared for the swine-flu epidemic in 2009, suggesting that the country is not positioned to respond to something more serious. He pointed to the early shortage of H1N1 vaccine despite a six-month advance warning from health officials that the disease would be potentially deadly.
The shortage, however, was largely a result of private manufacturing problems that the government hopes to alleviate in the future with a different process to make flu vaccine. The government’s work to identify the new flu virus and create “seed stock” for a vaccine quickly has been praised.
The WMD commission was formed by Congress to evaluate the government’s readiness for a terrorist attack involving weapons of mass destruction.
In a related development, two Democratic senators, three Republicans and an independent on Tuesday sent a letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. urging him not to place the purported 9/11 mastermind, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, on trial before a federal court in Manhattan.
“We and many others have already expressed serious concerns about whether a trial in civilian court might compromise classified evidence, including revealing sources and methods used by our intelligence community. We are also very concerned that, by bringing Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and other terrorists responsible for 9/11 to the federal courthouse in Lower Manhattan, only blocks away from where the Twin Towers once stood, you will be providing them one of the most visible platforms in the world to exalt their past acts and to rally others in support of further terrorism,” the six lawmakers wrote.
Those senators include Mr. Lieberman and Miss Collins, as well as Sen. Blanche Lincoln, Arkansas Democrat; Sen. Jim Webb, Virginia Democrat; Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican; and Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican.