White House counterterrorism and homeland security adviser John Brennan fought back against criticism that the Obama administration erred by allowing the FBI to read failed Christmas Day bomber Umar Farouq Abdulmutallab his Miranda rights. Brennan sought to portray Republican sniping as purely motivated by politics.
"On Christmas night, I called a number of senior members of Congress," Brennan said on NBC, specifically identifying Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, and House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, as well as the ranking Republicans on the Senate and House intelligence committees, Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., and Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich.
"I explained to them that he was in FBI custody, that Mr. Abdulmutallab was, in fact, talking, that he was cooperating at that point," Brennan said. "They knew that 'in FBI custody' means that there's a process then you follow as far as Mirandizing and presenting him in front of a magistrate. None of those individuals raised any concerns with me at that point. They didn't say, 'Is he going into military custody?' 'Is he going to be Mirandized?'"
Brennan said that the four Republicans "were very appreciative of the information. We told them we'd keep them informed, and that's what we did."
The Republicans challenged Brennan's description of the calls.
“During a brief call from the White House, Sen. McConnell was given a heads up that Abdulmutallab was in custody, but little else," said McConnell spokesman Don Stewart. "He wasn’t told of the decision to Mirandize Abdulmutallab." Stewart said Brennan "is clearly trying to shift the focus away from the fact that their bad decisions gave terrorists in Yemen a weeks-long head start."
In a statement, Bond said that "Brennan never told me any of plans to Mirandize the Christmas Day bomber–if he had I would have told him the Administration was making a mistake."
Boehner spokesman Kevin Smith said that this "Administration, and this Administration alone, made the dangerous decision to read Abdulmutallab his Miranda rights and treat him as a common criminal, not a terrorist, and it did so without even consulting our intelligence chiefs. Instead of attempting to dodge responsibility, John Brennan and this Administration should focus on fixing the near-catastrophic intelligence breakdown that failed to prevent this attack."
Many of the Republican leaders referred to January 20 testimony at the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee when the ranking Republican, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, asked Michael Leiter, director of the National Counter Terrorism Center; Admiral Dennis Blair (ret.), director of the National Intelligence; and Janet Napolitano, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, if they had been consulted regarding the decision to file criminal charges against Abdulmutallab in a civilian court.
"I was not," said Leiter.
"I was not," said Napolitano.
"I was not consulted," said Blair. "The decision was made on the scene."
"Can anyone take seriously the White House's assertion that it consulted with Republicans when President Obama didn't even consult his own Director of National Intelligence, FBI Director or Homeland Security Secretary concerning Abdulmutallab?" asked Hoekstra in a statement.
Obama administration officials point out, however, that the FBI was adhering to established procedure as signed into law by the Bush administration.
As Attorney General Eric Holder pointed out in a letter to McConnell last week, in 2003, President Bush signed a directive giving the Attorney General “lead responsibility for criminal investigations of terrorist acts or terrorist threats by individuals or groups inside the United States, or directed at United States citizens or institutions abroad, where such acts are within the Federal criminal jurisdiction of the United States.”
A senior administration official shot back at the responses of Boehner, McConnell, Hoekstra, and Bond.
"The truth is, not one time in the nearly eight years since (attempted shoe-bomber) Richard Reid was Mirandized has one of these guys offered an alternative view until now," the official said. "It's nothing but politics, pure and simple."
Their protests "would be easier to understand if there was one statement" from these Republicans "during that time that was different," the official said. "But alas, there isn't."
Boehner's and Hoekstra's offices said that the calls their bosses received were brief, unclassified and on non-secure phone lines.
"Brennan only informed him that Abdulmutallab had severe burns and was being treated," said Hoekstra's office.
"The call imparted no other substantive information," said Boehner's office, "and Brennan did not inform Boehner that the Administration had read Abdulmutallab his Miranda rights. This courtesy call certainly does not remotely qualify as a 'briefing' as Brennan stated."
A senior national security official points out that "to a person" all four members of Congress "acknowledge that Brennan told them that Abdulmutallab was in 'FBI custody.' What did they think being in FBI custody meant? And why did they not object then if they find it so objectionable now?"
One administration official expressed agreement with a statement from Spencer Ackerman of The Washington Independent, who wrote that the four Republican leaders, "who claim leadership on national security, know less about FBI procedure than the average movie-goer. Obviously the FBI Mirandizes suspects in their custody."