WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The top U.S. intelligence officer said on Wednesday that a group set up to interrogate terrorism suspects should have been used when a Nigerian man was arrested in Detroit on suspicion of trying to blow up a U.S. airliner.
Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair told a Senate committee that when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was taken into custody, the so-called High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group (HIG) should have been involved in questioning him.
“We should have automatically deployed the HIG. We will now,” Blair told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. He said that when the group was set up it was expected they would handle suspects detained overseas.
“We did not think about ... (a) case in which a terrorist was apprehended, as this one was, in the United States and we should have thought of that,” Blair said.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced the formation of the special group in August and gave the reins to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, replacing the CIA which had had the lead role in intelligence interrogations.
Republicans have been furious at the Obama administration’s decision to prosecute Abdulmutallab in a criminal court rather than a military tribunal, arguing that it was an act of war and they may have given up an opportunity to obtain intelligence.
“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,” said Maine Senator Susan Collins, the senior Republican on the Senate panel.
FBI Director Robert Mueller said at a separate hearing that the bombing suspect was interviewed. And White House officials have previously said that useful intelligence was obtained from Abdulmutallab before he stopped talking with investigators.
A law enforcement official previously said Abdulmutallab told investigators he trained with al Qaeda militants in Yemen and that they gave him the bomb.
Mueller told the Senate Judiciary Committee that there was no time to have the new group come in to conduct a specialized interrogation because Abdulmutallab was about to be treated for the wounds he suffered from the failed bombing attempt.
“There was a limited window of opportunity to obtain the intelligence that the agents felt they needed to obtain to determine more aspects of what had happened,” he said.
That decision was also harshly criticized by the top Republican on that committee, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who said that decision, coupled with reading Abdulmutallab his Miranda rights, potentially hampered obtaining intelligence.
“This was a bad mistake in my view,” said Sessions.
Editing by David Alexander and Eric Walsh
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