Abdulmutallab interrogated for less than an hour; White House defends handling of terrorist case 

The White House is not disputing a report that FBI agents questioned accused Northwest Airlines bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab for just 50 minutes before deciding to grant him the right to remain silent and provide him with a court-appointed lawyer -- a decision that led Abdulmutallab to stop talking and provide no more information.

The news came in an Associated Press reconstruction of Abdulmutallab's first hours in custody. The AP reported that Abdulmutallab "repeatedly made incriminating statements" to U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents who originally took him into custody. Then Abdulmutallab made more statements to doctors who were treating him for burns and other injuries. Only later did FBI agents interview him -- a session that lasted, according to the Associated Press, for "about 50 minutes." Before beginning the questioning, the AP continues, "the FBI agents decided not to give him his Miranda warnings informing him of his right to remain silent" -- apparently relying on an exception to Miranda that allows questioning about imminent threats.

After that, Abdulmutallab went into surgery. It was four hours before he was available for more questioning. By that time, the Justice Department in Washington had intervened. A new set of agents read Abdulmutallab the Miranda warning, telling him he had the right to remain silent -- and thereafter, Abdulmutallab remained silent.

On "Fox News Sunday," host Chris Wallace asked White House spokesman Robert Gibbs whether President Obama was informed of the decision to read Abdulmutallab his Miranda rights before or after it was done. Gibbs avoided the question, saying, "That decision was made by the Justice Department and the FBI, with experienced FBI interrogators." Gibbs stressed that "Abdulmutallab was interrogated and valuable intelligence was gotten as a result of that interrogation."

Wallace pressed. "But we now find out he was interrogated for 50 minutes," he said to Gibbs. "When they came back, he was read his Miranda rights and he clammed up."

"No," Gibbs answered. "Again, he was interrogated. Valuable intelligence was gotten based on those interrogations. And I think the Department of Justice and the -- made the right decision, as did those FBI agents."

"Let me just press one last question," Wallace said. "You really don't think that if you'd interrogated him longer that you might have gotten more information, since we now know that Al Qaeda in Yemen -- "

"Well, FBI interrogators believe they got valuable intelligence and were able to get all that they could out of him," Gibbs said.

"All they could?" Wallace asked.

"Yeah," Gibbs said.

Bottom line: Gibbs did not dispute that the FBI interviewed Abdulmutallab for just 50 minutes. But Gibbs maintained that agents learned everything that was possible to learn from the accused terrorist, who was trained by, and presumably knew about, the activities of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. If the agents learned everything that was possible to learn from Abdulmutallab in just 50 minutes, it was likely a world record of interrogation.

A few days ago, Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee and Homeland Security Committee asked questions that led to the disclosure that key national security officials were not consulted in the decision to treat Abdulmutallab as a civilian criminal, rather than as an enemy combatant, which would have allowed officials to interrogate him extensively without any assertion that Abdulmutallab had the right to remain silent. In light of these new revelations, it is likely that the GOP will step up its questions for Attorney General Eric Holder -- and for the president himself -- about why that decision was made.

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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