The decision to advise the accused Christmas Day attacker of his right to remain silent was made after teleconferences involving at least four government agencies -- and only after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had stopped talking to authorities, according to knowledgeable law enforcement officials.
Among those involved in the hastily called teleconferences were representatives from the Justice Department and the FBI, along with officials from the State Department and the CIA.
“It was a [law enforcement] community-wide conference, and they discussed a number of things,” one source said on condition of anonymity. “That’s when decisions were made on which course was going to proceed, to Mirandize him or otherwise.”
The source said that Abdulmutallab was not read his rights until he made it clear that he was not going to say anything else.
Other government sources, also speaking anonymously, provided new details about what happened after Northwest Airlines Flight 253 landed in Detroit on Christmas Day. Abdulmutallab was taken to a hospital in Ann Arbor, Mich., for treatment of burns from a fire aboard the plane. Authorities said the blaze was sparked when Abdulmutallab tried to ignite explosives in his underwear.
FBI agents questioned him at the hospital for just under an hour. They did not give him the Miranda warning, which advises suspects that anything they say can be used against them at trial, citing an exemption that allows them first to seek crucial information on any pending crime.
During the questioning, one source said, Abdulmutallab suggested that other terrorism attempts were in the works. “He was making comments like, ‘Others were following me.’ And that is a circumstance where you’ve got a potential disaster, that there are others out there and you don’t have to Mirandize him right away.”
But the questioning stopped when doctors said they needed to sedate Abdulmutallab to treat his injuries. At that point, the sources said, the agents backed off.
“The two agents who interviewed him are very experienced counter-terrorism agents,” a source said. “They’ve been around a long time and have traveled internationally. And the Detroit area has the largest Muslim community in the country.”
When Abdulmutallab awakened, a second team of FBI agents was sent in. Authorities thought he might be willing to say even more to the second set of agents.
“We had to see if he was still willing to talk,” another source said. “And it was pretty quickly apparent to them that he wasn’t. He had had a change of mind. It was only after establishing that with some confidence that they decided to go ahead and Mirandize him.”
But by that time, the second source said, “We had already talked to him for almost an hour and he provided a lot of information.”
It still remains unclear who gave the go-ahead to read him the Miranda warning.
Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair told the Senate Homeland Security Committee last month that the decision to read Abdulmutallab his rights was a mistake. Now, Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. is being pressured to appear on Capitol Hill to clarify why that decision was made. Blair told senators that the decision was “made by the FBI team agent in charge on the scene, consulting with his headquarters and Department of Justice.”
FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III told the Senate Judiciary Committee last month that the decision was, “I believe, very appropriate, given the situation.” But he added that he was “not fully familiar with who talked to whom on the afternoon.”
The emerging details could fan the debate over whether the government blundered by using the routine criminal procedure with a foreign terrorism suspect. Abdulmutallab, 23, a Nigerian, flew into Detroit from Amsterdam.
Republican critics in particular have said that the way the arrest was handled illustrated a tilt by the Obama administration toward awarding constitutional rights to terrorism suspects who should be subjected to unimpeded interrogations.
The administration’s policy is that all terrorism suspects go through the civilian judicial system, unlike during the George W. Bush administration. So at some point authorities had to read Abdulmutallab his rights.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee and a former federal prosecutor and state attorney general in Alabama, said in an interview that President Obama’s policy of taking terrorism suspects to court rather than military tribunals was carried over from political promises he made on the campaign trail.
“His policy got driven by the campaign,” Sessions said. “Now he gets elected and reality keeps intruding. Sometimes you just have to take your lumps and reverse your decision.”
And Sen. Susan Collins of Maine said in the GOP weekly address Saturday that the nation’s top intelligence officials were not consulted about the Miranda warning. If they had been, she said, “they would have explained the importance of gathering all possible intelligence about Yemen, where there is a serious threat from terrorists whose sights are trained on this nation. They would have explained the critical nature of learning all we could from Abdulmutallab.”
Authorities said Abdulmutallab, who once lived in Yemen, had links to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
But an administration official, speaking anonymously because the investigation is ongoing, said Abdulmutallab was being handled exactly like every other suspected terrorist apprehended on U.S. soil since the Sept. 11 attacks, and that the pattern “demonstrates the continuing value of federal courts in combating terrorism.”
Unless a suspect is warned of his right to remain silent and to speak with a lawyer, his words cannot be used against him at trial.
But in this case there was no need for authorities to rely on a possible confession because there were plenty of witnesses -- Abdulmutallab’s fellow passengers.
“They had a truly overwhelming case against him,” said University of Utah law professor Paul Cassell, a former federal judge. “The focus should have been on getting additional information from him.”