Obama Administration Secured Help of Abdulmuttalab’s Family to Get Him to Share Intelligence

Feb 2, 2010 9:00pm

Jake Tapper and Sunlen Miller report:

The family of the failed Christmas Day bomber, Umar Farouq Abdulmuttalab, played a pivotal role in getting their son to start cooperating with federal authorities in sharing information about Al Qaeda, a senior administration official said Tuesday evening.

Abdulmuttalab has been cooperating with authorities and sharing intelligence since last Thursday, another administration official told ABC News.

The family was “instrumental in gaining Mr. Abdulmuttalab’s cooperation," said the senior administration official. The information Abdulmuttalab is sharing has been described by other officials as fresh and actionable.

“It has been very successful," the official said, "as far as gaining his cooperation that will allow us then to follow up on that information." He said the intelligence gained "has been disseminated throughout the intelligence community."

Into Africa

After days of being briefed on information about the case, two “experienced counterterrorism agents” from the FBI flew to Lagos, Nigeria on January 1, the official said.

Once in Nigeria, the agents met with officials of the US State Department, CIA officers, and others in the "country team." 

The agents began a “thorough and comprehensive” background investigation of Abdulmuttalab, contacting his family, friends and associates and conducting thorough background interviews "to gain understanding of the subject.”

The two agents identified those family members who “directly supported gaining Umar Farouq’s cooperation and disagreed with his effort to murder innocent civilians.”

The agents and key family members arrived in back in the US on January 17th. The family members met with officials from the Justice Department and the FBI to plan a way forward.

“One of the principal reasons why his family came back is because they had complete trust in the US system of justice and believed that Umar Farouq would be treated fairly and appropriately," the senior official said. "And that they would be as well.”

The FBI and Abdulmuttalab's family approached the subject and “gained his cooperation. He has been cooperating for days," the official said. 

Criticism "Frustrated The Hell Out of Me"

Abdulmuttalab was talking to FBI agents on Saturday, at the same time Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, ranking Republican on the Senate Homeland Security Committee, issued the Republican response to the president's weekly address, decrying Abdulmuttalab's presence in the criminal justice system. 

Collins is just one of many critics questioning why Abdulmuttalab was read his Miranda rights under the criminal justice system instead of being interrogated under military rules.

“There is a reason why these things are done the way they are done and believe me it frustrated the hell out of me to listen to a lot of the comments being made that were criticizing this process," the official said. "But the premium that this White House – that this president puts on these operations – is to make sure that we do everything possible to protect the American people.”

The official said "people with no experience and apparently less knowledge about the case and the issues involved have made it a cause célèbre . As though there were some type of strange practice or action that took place here. When it’s consistent with all the practices of the previous administration.”

Those who had access to Abdulmuttalab concluded that "putting him in front of somebody with a military uniform would have made him even more opposed to any type of cooperation," the official said. "The way to get to him is to use family members who are going to be supportive of what we’re trying to do”

The FBI agents involved in making the decisions "did it exactly the way they were trained to do, the way past practice has occurred without exception," the official said. "There were a lot of politicians who were speaking out who had not one lick of counterterrorism experience who were second-guessing the professionals who have engaged in these issues, very successfully and in a very dedicated fashion over the years. And to have a how-many-mile screwdriver from here to Detroit try to micromanage the process, I find it quite frankly appalling.”

The senior administration official expressed frustration that news of Abdulmuttalab's cooperation was revealed to the public today. 

In congressional testimony, the director of National Intelligence, Admiral Dennis Blair (ret.), said of Abdulmuttalab, "we got good intelligence. We're getting more." 

FBI director Robert Mueller said as much as well.

Consistent with Bush Practices

The Obama administration is “confident” that Abdulmuttalab will continue to cooperate, the official said, "and the information will be leveraged to the fullest extent to protect this country….As in prior cases once an individual is on board we anticipate continuing to gain intelligence of value that can be shared with the intelligence community, foreign partners and can be used to disrupt other attacks.”

The team supporting his interviews includes: the CIA, other members of the intelligence community, and involved FBI expert behavioral analysts. The official would not divulge who is questioning Abdulmuttalab, which members of the family were involved, whether any family members are still in the US, and whether Abdulmuttalab's cooperation is  part of a plea deal.

The president has been kept “fully apprised” of this situation and briefed on an “ongoing basis.” Members of Congress were briefed about the information-sharing on Monday.

The Bush administration used the criminal justice system to convict more than 300 terrorists, the official noted, adding that accused shoe-bomber Richard Reid was Mirandized within 5 minutes.

“When Flight 2523 landed in Detroit the men and women in the FBI, the Department of Justice, did precisely what they were trained to do, what their policies require then to do and what the nation expects them to do," the official said. “The FBI’s current Miranda policy – adopted by the prior administration — provided explicitly that within the United States Miranda warnings are required to be given prior to interviews. The initial questioning of Abdulmuttalab conducted without Miranda warni
ngs under a public safety exception that has been recognized by the courts.”

The subsequent questioning was conducted with Miranda warnings, the official said. “Providing Miranda warnings does not prevent us from obtaining intelligence from him…There is in fact no court approved system currently in place in which suspected terrorist captures in the United States can be detained and held without access to an attorney.”

The official said that "there has been a fair process that has been followed, and in the past five weeks or so every day we have  had the opportunity to evaluate and revaluate the case and to determine whether or not the course we were on were on one was the right one. And we determined that that was the case. And in consultation with the FBI, and the assessment was the best way to get Mr. Abdulmuttalab to talk was working with his family.”

- Jake Tapper and Sunlen Miller 

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