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 the system 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.
National Security Officials Testify on Capitol Hill
It has been nearly a month since student Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab allegedly tried to bomb the trans-Atlantic Northwest flight Dec. 25. The Nigerian student sits in federal custody in Michigan after pleading not guilty to terrorism charges.
But today marked the first opportunity for lawmakers to publicly grill bureaucrats and administration officials on the incident.
Another hearing, scheduled for Thursday by the Senate Intelligence Committee, is classified and closed to the public and the media.
But, clearly, domestic attacks have taken center stage.
"Rewinding the clock to Sept. 10  will not deter Islamist militants. It will only embolden them," Sessions said.
"We should be building on and perfecting the security apparatus we put in place after 9/11,not tearing it down," he said in a preview of his hearing, arguing that Americans should have been more attuned to the terror threat even before 2001.
"We must remember that terrorists started their war on us before the Patriot Act, before Guantanamo Bay, before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, before even 9/11. In the 1990s, terrorists struck American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the USS Cole, and launched their first attempt to destroy the World Trade Center," Sessions said. "It was in 1998 that Osama bin Laden issued his call to war against the West."
Abdulmutallab was not yet a teenager in 1998, but the government's case against him in federal court in Michigan has been roundly criticized by Republicans, who argue that attempted acts of terror should be treated as part of a war and not law enforcement matters.
"They have given terrorists Miranda rights instead of tough interrogations, and have shipped foreign war criminals to American communities for civilian trial," Sessions said.
Other Republicans likely to make noise at the hearings include McCain, who sits on the Homeland Security Committee, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a member of the Judiciary Committee. Both had criticized Obama for his decision to move terror detainees from Guantanamo Bay to the United States for trial in civilian court instead of by military tribunal.
The Obama administration has already halted the transfer of Guantanamo detainees to Yemen, where the failed Christmas Day plot was hatched. But Graham and McCain have called for a wider halt of transfers to include Afghanistan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and other countries.
Democrats, meanwhile, could ask Mueller questions that have nothing to do with the attempted Christmas Day attack. He helmed the FBI during the Bush administration when, after 9/11, phantom terror threats were used to illegally gather phone records.
Fort Hood Hearing Next
Beyond finger-pointing, Congress must consider this month a long-stalled renewal of expired parts of the Patriot Act, the 2001 law that gave law enforcement and intelligence communities new tools to combat terror threats.
The hearings will not end today, either. The Homeland Security Committee, chaired by Sen. Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut independent, will hear testimony Thursday on the Fort Hood attack in November, when Army Maj. Nidal Hasan allegedly killed 13 on the Texas Army installation.
An independent review recommended new security procedures, background checks and changes in policy regarding what is kept in a servicemember's personnel file.
Lieberman has criticized the report, which he said should have been more focused on the threat of Islamic extremism.
"I believe firmly that if [the Defense Department] educates its personnel about violent Islamist extremism -- and how terrorists distort the Islamic faith to promote violence -- we will increase trust between the thousands of Muslim-Americans serving honorably in the military and their colleagues," Lieberman said in a statement Jan. 15.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.