Feds Mislabeled Christmas Bombing Suspect

Intel chief testifies Nigerian should have been 'high-value' terror suspect.

ByABC News
January 19, 2010, 3:38 PM

WASHINGTON, Jan. 20, 2010 -- The Christmas Day airline bombing suspect should have been questioned by special interrogators instead of federal law enforcement investigators before his case entered the criminal justice system, the nation's top intelligence official testified before Congress today.

Dennis Blair, the Director of National Intelligence, told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that he was not asked whether the suspect should have been treated as a high-value terror suspect upon landing in Detroit and handled first by the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group, (HIG) which the Obama administration created last year.

"That unit was created exactly for this purpose, to make a decision on whether...a certain person who's detained should be treated as...a case for federal prosecution." Blair said.

"We did not invoke the HIG in this case. We should've. Frankly, we were thinking more of overseas people…The decision was made on the scene. Seemed logical to the people there, but it should have been taken using this HIG format at a higher level," he added.

Blair and U.S. National Counterterrorism Center Director Michael Leiter, who was also on a panel this morning, have come under heat for the failed Christmas Day plot and its aftermath.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., leveled the sharpest questioning this morning when he demanded accountability for failures to stop the suspect from boarding the Northwest Airlines flight to the United States.

"Has anyone been held accountable?" McCain asked the panel.

"We are in fact conducting internal reviews... The president is reviewing my performance as well. That is absolutely appropriate," Leiter said.

Blair, a retired Navy, four-star admiral, jousted with McCain and said that officials are working quickly to fill any gaps in the intelligence system while a long-term review is conducted.

"You and I have a Navy background, Sen. McCain. And you know that you do two sort of investigations when something bad happens. The first is a safety investigation to fix the parts of thesystem so that you get the word out, it doesn't happen again. The second is the accountability part of the investigation."

McCain shot back, "it's been my experience, Admiral, that when the captain of the ship does something wrong...the captain is relieved immediately."

Blair and Leiter were among several high-ranking officials testifying on Capitol Hill today as Congress turns its eye to terrorism this week with a buffet of high-profile hearings on domestic terror attacks.

During an afternoon session of the Senate Commerce Committee Sen. Bryan Dorgan, D-N.D., said he was troubled by the amount of data that was missed.

"[You had] intercepts with 2 first names…something about Dec. 25 and something about Nigeria," Dorgan said to Leiter.

"The responsibility was mine." Leiter responded. "We were concerned about an operation but we did not piece together the where."

Also at the Commerce Committee hearing, former 9/11 Commission chairman Lee Hamilton focused some criticism on the size and role of the office of the Director of National Intelligence.

"The DNI has been hobbled by endless disputes over its size, mission, and authority," Hamilton said.

"We are seriously behind the curve...the intelligence community does not do a good enough job on long term threats."

As expected, Republicans are bringing tough questions for intelligence officials and the Obama administration on the politically sensitive topic of how to deal with suspected terrorists -- as enemy combatants or as criminals.

The two-day hearings range far beyond the attempted Christmas Day attack, as Republicans made clear Tuesday.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who is the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he would use the hearing on the botched Northwest Airlines attack to draw a distinction between anti-terror policies under President Bush and those under President Obama.

The hearing will "provide a forum to discuss the national security policies of this administration, policies that I believe are moving us back toward the failed approach in place before 9/11," Sessions said Tuesday.

FBI Director Robert Mueller is on the hot seat today before the Judiciary Committee. He told the committee this morning that al Qaeda's terror network is emerging in Pakistan, Yemen and the Horn of Africa as the United States dismantles the group's operations in Afghanistan, according to The Associated Press.