WASHINGTON Two senior U.S. senators urged the Obama administration to hand over to the U.S. military the man accused of trying to blow up a U.S. passenger jet on Christmas Day for additional interrogation and charges.
The Independent chairman and the ranking Republican on the Senate Homeland Security Committee, Joe Lieberman and Susan Collins, demanded that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab be charged as an enemy combatant rather than in a U.S. criminal court.
The decision to charge him in a criminal court "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," they said in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder and Obama's counterterrorism adviser John Brennan.
Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old from Nigeria, was interviewed for about an hour by FBI agents and a day later was charged in a U.S. criminal court with trying to blow up Northwest flight 253 as it was approaching Detroit from Amsterdam on December 25.
How the Obama administration handled the case has become almost daily fodder for Republicans, who accuse the White House of not being tough enough on national security matters, charges officials have denied.
During Abdulmutallab's interrogation, he told investigators that he had trained in Yemen and had been given the bomb device by al Qaeda militants, a law enforcement source has said.
After the interview, he was read his Miranda rights informing him he could request an attorney and did not have to speak to law enforcement officers.
That has incensed many Republicans and Lieberman, a former Democrat turned Independent, who said Abdulmutallab committed an act of war. They also were concerned that the intelligence community was cut out of the interview and the decision.
"The administration can reverse this error, at least to some degree, by immediately transferring Abdulmutallab to the Department of Defense," Lieberman and Collins said.
Obama officials have defended their decisions about Abdulmutallab's interrogation and arrest, arguing they obtained useful intelligence before he was read his rights and pointed to past cases where terrorism suspects have been charged in U.S. criminal courts, like would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid.
"The FBI did have an opportunity to interrogate Mr. Abdulmutallab," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters. "They got intelligence, useful and actionable intelligence, that was then transmitted back to officials throughout the government."
A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment on the request by Lieberman and Collins and pointed to a statement issued last week defending the decisions.
"Those who now argue that a different action should have been taken in this case were notably silent when dozens of terrorists were successfully prosecuted in federal court by the previous administration," Justice Department spokesman Matt Miller said last week.
(Reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky, editing by David Alexander and Cynthia Osterman)