UPDATE 1-US defends interrogation of airplane bomb suspect

Wed Feb 3, 2010 10:20pm EST

Related Topics

* Attorney General made decision on criminal charges

* Republicans still say intelligence was lost

* Mukasey says suspect's value was as intelligence asset (Adds former Attorney General Mukasey, paragraphs 14-17)

By James Vicini

WASHINGTON, Feb 3 (Reuters) - U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on Wednesday rebuffed criticism that intelligence was lost by giving a lawyer and other legal rights to the Nigerian man accused of trying to blow up a U.S. airliner.

In a letter to Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, Holder also said he made the decision to charge the suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, with crimes in the regular U.S. court system.

Holder rejected widespread criticism by Republicans and some Democrats in Congress over how the suspect was interviewed by FBI agents for only about an hour before he stopped cooperating and then was read his Miranda rights, providing him a lawyer and full U.S. constitutional legal rights.

Abdulmutallab, 23, was charged with trying to blow up a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day with a bomb hidden in his underwear, drawing further criticism from some lawmakers who said he should face a special military court instead of being tried in civilian court.

Holder's letter appeared to be part of an Obama administration effort to respond more forcefully to the growing criticism over how the suspect was detained and questioned, an issue that has caused political problems for the White House.

Holder said Abdulmutallab recently provided "additional intelligence to the FBI" but did not give any details.

Senior U.S. officials said on Tuesday that Abdulmutallab was providing useful intelligence after the FBI flew his relatives to the United States from Nigeria to urge him to cooperate.

FEDERAL CRIMINAL LAW

Since the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, the U.S. government's practice without exception has been to arrest and detain under federal criminal law all terrorism suspects who have been apprehended inside the United States, Holder said.

"The interrogation of Abdulmutallab was handled in accordance with FBI policy that has governed interrogation of every suspected terrorist apprehended in the United States for many years," he said.

Holder said the FBI on the evening of Dec. 25 and on the morning of Dec. 26 told other representatives in the U.S. intelligence community that Abdulmutallab would be charged in court, and no agency objected.

"As attorney general, I am guided not by partisanship or political considerations but by a commitment to using the most effective course of action in each case," he said.

Republicans such as McConnell and Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina remained critical of the administration.

"It was a mistake to read him Miranda rights after he was apprehended and to suggest otherwise is just political spin," Graham said.

Michael Mukasey, who handled terrorism cases as a federal judge and as attorney general for Republican President George W. Bush, told the "PBS NewsHour" program that Abdulmutallab's main value was a source of intelligence information.

"I think the first concern should have been to use him not as a defendant but as an intelligence asset," Mukasey said.

He said the only drawback would have been that the suspect's confession would not have been admissible in a civilian court since he would not have been granted his right to remain silent or have a lawyer present during questioning.

"Given the fact that he committed his offense in front of 285 witnesses, that's not a big loss," Mukasey said.

In a speech on Wednesday to the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, McConnell said any intelligence from Abdulmutallab was needed immediately, not weeks after his arrest.

"All the intelligence he possessed concerning the locations, training techniques and communications methods of al Qaeda in Yemen is perishable. Yemeni forces needed that information on December 25th, not six weeks later," he said.

U.S. law enforcement officials have said Abdulmutallab told them that he had received training as well as the explosive device from militants in Yemen affiliated with al Qaeda. (Reporting by Jim Vicini; Editing by John O'Callaghan)

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