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Intel chief says Christmas bomb case mishandled

Eileen Sullivan And Devlin Barrett

The nation's intelligence chief said Wednesday that the Christmas Day airline bombing suspect should have been treated as a terrorism detainee when the plane landed. That would have meant having special interrogators question him before deciding whether to place him in the civilian court system.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was interviewed by FBI agents when Northwest Flight 253 landed in Detroit after he allegedly tried to detonate a homemade bomb sneaked through airport security in Nigeria and Amsterdam. Abdulmutallab is being held in a prison about 50 miles outside of Detroit.

Critics assert that the government should have at least considered whether to delay placing him in the civilian court system in order to press him for any useful intelligence before he gained the legal protections of a lawyer.

Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair told the Senate Homeland Security Committee that he was not consulted on whether Abdulmutallab should be questioned by the recently created High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group, or HIG, and charged in federal court.

"That unit was created exactly for this purpose," Blair said. "We did not invoke the HIG in this case. We should have."

The interrogation group cited by Blair was created by the Obama administration last year to handle high-value terror suspects, but it was envisioned for use with suspects caught overseas, not in the U.S. The group, to be led by FBI interrogators and including experts from a range of agencies, is still being assembled and has not been deployed yet.

Blair said the decision to file criminal charges against the suspect in federal court was made "on the scene."

"Seemed logical to the people there, but it should have been taken using this HIG format at a higher level," Blair said.

Under questioning by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, Blair and Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano said they were not consulted before the decision was made to not use the high-value detainee interrogation group. Also, Michael Leiter, chief of the National Counterterrorism Center, said he was not consulted.

"That is very troubling," Collins said. "It appears to me that we lost an opportunity to secure some valuable intelligence information, and that the process that Director Blair described should have been implemented in this case. And I think it's very troubling that it was not, and that three key intelligence officials were not asked their opinion.

Blair also said criteria for adding people to the government's "no fly" list was too legalistic. And he said that in recent years there has been pressure to shrink rather than expand the list because of a cascade of complaints from people getting "hassled" by authorities. "Why are you searching grandmothers?" was a too-common refrain, he said.

"Shame on us for giving in to that pressure," Blair said. Since the Christmas episode, the list has been expanded, he said.

In a separate hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, FBI Director Robert Mueller said al-Qaida and its offshoots are spreading and rebuilding. He said the U.S. has dismantled much of al-Qaida's infrastructure in Afghanistan, but the terror network and its associated groups are rebuilding in Pakistan, Yemen, and the Horn of Africa.

In a testy exchange with Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the senior Republican on the committee, Mueller said Abdulmutallab made statements to FBI agents before being given his Miranda warnings.

Sessions argued it was inappropriate to arrest the suspect and put him in the criminal justice system, and said that instead he should have been declared an enemy combatant and turned over to military authorities for interrogation.

"Intelligence is what saves lives," said Sessions, his voice rising. "It sounds to me like the guys on the ground just made a decision on the fly."

Since the incident, Republicans have argued the Obama administration mishandled the case by treating it as a crime rather than an act of war.

Mueller defended the decision to arrest the young Nigerian as very appropriate "based on an ongoing, very fluid situation."

The director insisted it was important for the FBI to talk to the suspect not just to find out what he'd done but find out "what other threats were out there that need to be addressed."

Asked by Sessions later why the special interrogation group wasn't used in the Detroit case, Mueller said it is still being formed and there wasn't time to get the right experts together and send them to Detroit.

"There was not the opportunity to do the type of consultation that you suggest and recommend," Mueller told Sessions, who disagreed, saying the suspect's injuries were not life-threatening and therefore there was time to gather outside interrogation experts.

Republicans on the Homeland Security Committee also hammered the administration on giving Abdulmutallab a civilian trial.

"It's a terrible, terrible mistake, when it's pretty clear that this individual did not act alone," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said.

McCain said this decision could affect U.S. national security.

Republicans have opposed recent Obama administration decisions to try terrorists in civilian courts, saying it limits investigators' ability to get information about other terror plots from the suspects.

In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, the State Department's undersecretary for management, Patrick Kennedy, who said one of the flaws exposed by the Christmas case was the name-checking software at his agency.

By misspelling the suspect's name, State Department officials did not realize he had already been issued a visa. Such alternative spelling software was used only in checking names before a visa was issued, Kennedy said.

"We slipped up," said Kennedy.

The software is now being added for name-checks done after a visa is granted, Kennedy said.

A White House report this month on the Christmas Day episode outlined a series of missteps, including the name misspellings, ignored warnings and oversights. But for a failed detonator and the swift action of passengers, the attack might have killed all 289 people aboard.

The election Tuesday of Republican Scott Brown to a longtime-Democratic Senate seat in Massachusetts could provide the GOP with more incentive to take on the Obama administration's national security policy. Brown, who made national security a key part of his campaign, will deprive Democrats of a key 60th vote necessary to keep Republicans from blocking their agenda.

The White House is bracing for the tougher Senate outlook.

Wednesday morning, the administration's choice to lead the Transportation Security Administration withdrew his name, saying his nomination had become a lightning rod for those with a political agenda.

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Associated Press writers Pamela Hess and Robert Burns contributed to this report.

The Associated Press
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