Obama’s Christmas Day Cover-Up

Terence P. Jeffrey
By Terence P. Jeffrey | February 3, 2010 | 10:06 AM EST

(Editor’s Note: After this column was written and filed, The Washington Post reported on Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2009, that according to “Obama administration sources,” Abdulmutallab “has been providing FBI interrogators with useful intelligence about his training and contacts since last week.”  “U.S. investigators flew members of Abdulmutallab's family from Nigeria to the United States on Jan. 17, the senior administration official said,” the Post reported. “The family members have proved vital in getting Abdulmutallab to talk, he said--indicating that it would have been counterproductive to interrogate him under military rules, as some have suggested.”)

On Jan. 20, John Brennan, counterterrorism adviser to President Barack Obama, briefed senators on what the administration knew about the attempted Christmas Day attack on Northwest Flight 253.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky asked Brennan three times who in the administration made the decision to treat would-be suicide bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab as a criminal defendant rather than as an unlawful enemy combatant. That decision had been made only about 10 hours after Abdulmutallab’s arrest, when FBI agents who otherwise would have continued interrogating Abdulmutallab were authorized to advise the terrorist he had the “right” to remain silent.

Up to that moment, the FBI had only been able to question Abdulmutallab for 50 minutes. Since that moment, Abdulmutallab has not spoken to investigators again. Nor has the administration come clean about who decided to treat him like a civilian criminal and Mirandize him.

“I asked this question last night of John Brennan, the president’s senior counterterrorism adviser, three times and he refused to answer,” McConnell revealed on the Senate floor on Jan. 21. “I think that the Senate is entitled to know precisely who authorized this.”

The administration may have a good reason for not wanting Americans to know the facts about who decided what and when on Christmas. What is already known points to one of two likely conclusions: Either resident Obama acted with gross negligence or with gross stupidity.

Flight 253 landed in Detroit on Christmas at 11:53 a.m. Eastern time. Obama was in Hawaii, where it was 6:53 a.m. Multiple reports indicate Obama was initially briefed on the attempted bombing of the flight at 9:00 or 9:30 a.m. Hawaii time. He was sufficiently worried to immediately order increased security measures for air travel.

At 1:30 p.m. Hawaii time (6:30 p.m. Eastern), Chuck Todd reported from Hawaii on the “NBC Nightly News” that during the day Obama had been “getting information during the interrogation process.”

“He’s been doing a couple of secure conference calls with his chief terrorism-counterterrorism adviser John Brennan, who is back in Washington, and his highest ranking national security adviser official here, Dennis McDonough, who is chief of staff of the National Security Council,” said Todd. “He’s received two updates so far. He’s going to get a third one before the day is over, sort of real-time information, as they’ve been getting information during the interrogation process of the suspect who, of course, is now detained.”

On Jan. 24, Devlin Barrett of The Associated Press published an excellent investigative report about that interrogation. Barrett reported that authorities brought Abdulmutallab from the Detroit airport to the University of Michigan hospital where he arrived at about 2:00 p.m. Eastern (9:00 a.m. Hawaii time) on Christmas. FBI agents arrived there at about 2:15 p.m. Eastern. They did not give him Miranda rights then. Together with a Customs officer and Immigration agent, they interrogated Abdulmutallab for 50 minutes starting at about 3:30 p.m. Eastern (or 10:30 a.m. Hawaii time).

Barrett reported that unnamed counterterrorism officials said “it was during this questioning that he admitted he had been trained and instructed in the plot by al-Qaida operatives in Yemen.”

According to Barrett, the federal agents stopped their interrogation when Abdulmutallab was given medication and went into surgery and that a new team of FBI agents came to resume the interrogation more than five hours later when the medication was wearing off. This is when Abdulmutallab was given Miranda rights — apparently between 9:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m. Eastern (or 4:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. Hawaii time).

If President Obama was indeed repeatedly briefed throughout Christmas Day on the Flight 253 incident, and if the AP report is accurate, he would have had plenty of time by 9:00 p.m. Eastern to learn Abdulmutallab was claiming he had been trained and instructed by al-Qaida. Obama also would have had plenty of time to ponder whether it was appropriate to treat this terrorist as an unlawful combatant and try to get more information out of him through interrogations or treat him as a civilian criminal and tell him he had the right to remain silent.

When FBI Director Robert Mueller testified in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Jan. 20, Sen. Jeff Sessions, the ranking Republican, asked him who in the “upper echelons” of Justice was involved in the decision to Mirandize Abdulmutallab. Mueller, like Brennan, would not answer. “I’d be happy to discuss that with you, but I do believe I have to go through the Department of Justice to get approval to do that,” he said.

Mueller, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and National Counterterrorism Center Director Michael Leiter all told congressional committees they were not consulted about the Christmas decision to Mirandize Abdulmutallab.

On Jan. 21, all Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans signed a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder asking him who at Justice decided to Mirandize Abdulmutallab. On Jan. 26, Sessions joined McConnell and the ranking Republicans on the Intelligence, Homeland Security and Armed Services committees in signing a letter to Holder asking him to provide written answers to questions about the Christmas Day decisions and to testify about those decisions.

As of Tuesday, the administration had not responded to either letter. Now the questions should go to Obama: What did you decide, and when did you decide it?