The 50-minute man

The Associated Press reported yesterday that the amount of time FBI interrogators had with the EunuchBomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, prior to reading the terrorist his Miranda rights was all of fifty minutes.  They spoke directly with Abdulmutallab long enough to send the FBI on a wild-goose chase for a second bomb on the airplane, and for hours before going into surgery they overheard him discussing his attack with anyone who would listen, including medical personnel treating his severe burns.  When Abdulmutallab came out of surgery, the FBI decided to read him the Miranda rights despite having an exception for imminent threats — and the terrorist clammed up:

For hours after allegedly trying to use a bomb hidden in his underwear to blow up a Christmas Day flight to Detroit, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab talked and talked—to Customs officers, medical personnel, and FBI agents.

He spoke openly about what he’d done and why, and provided valuable intelligence, U.S. officials told The Associated Press in a series of interviews that spell out for the first time the details of Abdulmutallab’s arrest and questioning on Dec. 25. …

The FBI interview with the suspected bomber lasted about 50 minutes. Before they began questioning Abdulmutallab, the FBI agents decided not to give him his Miranda warnings informing him of his right to remain silent. …

Abdulmutallab’s interview ended when the suspect was given medication and the investigators decided it would be better to let the effects of the drugs wear off before pressing him further.

The suspect went into surgery, and would not be questioned again for more than five hours.

By that time, FBI bosses in Washington had decided a new interrogation team was needed. They made that move in case the lack of a Miranda warning or the suspect’s medical condition at the time of the earlier conversations posed legal problems later on for prosecutors.

What can be learned and verified in a 50-minute interrogation?  It usually takes longer than that just to get identities verified and establish enough rapport to determine reliability.  As Byron York writes, the White House spin that the interrogation was successful would mean a new world record in terrorist interrogations:

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 had been done. Gibbs avoided the question, saying, “That decision was made by the Justice Department and the FBI, with experienced FBI interrogators.” Gibbs insisted 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.” …

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.

What is apparent here is that the law-enforcement model of counterterrorism cost us an opportunity to get valuable intel from an active terrorist.  The interrogators were more concerned about a judge in a criminal court than they were about other terrorist attacks that may be coming against the US.  We had an opportunity to learn about contacts, places, leadership, any active recruiting cells in London or Nigeria, all of which would have taken longer than 50 minutes to unwind out of a man in excruciating pain from setting his own balls on fire.

No one thought to call the military to handle Abdulmutallab.  And even if anyone had thought to call in the specialized High-Value Interrogation Group to conduct the interrogation, the HIG teams aren’t assembled yet, a year after Barack Obama disbanded their predecessors.  The local FBI decided to keep Abdulmutallab in the criminal system without ever consulting the leadership of the counterterrorist efforts in DNI, NCTC, or DHS, all of whom got informed afterward of the decision as a fait accompli.

It’s difficult to see how this could have been botched more.  But don’t blame the agents on the ground, who saw the way that the Obama administration decided to handle top AQ leaders like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.  They must have concluded, reasonably, that they would have their asses in a sling if they didn’t give the terrorist his Miranda rights, and that they would be held accountable for any inability to prosecute him in the same courtroom as thieves and fraudsters.

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