WASHINGTON — The nation's intelligence chief on Wednesday conceded missteps in the government's handling of the Christmas Day airline bombing attempt, but his comments about the failure to use a special federal interrogation team may have amounted to a misstep of his own.
National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair raised new questions Wednesday before a Senate panel about how well prepared the administration is to respond on short notice to domestic terrorist acts.
Blair suggested the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group, also known as HIG, should have questioned the Nigerian airline bomb incident suspect before any decisions were made on whether to place him in the civilian court system.
"That unit was created exactly for this purpose," Blair told the Senate Homeland Security Committee. "We did not invoke the HIG in this case. We should have."
But the elite interrogation unit cited by Blair was designed by the Obama administration last year to deal with suspects captured abroad. And it is not operational yet, FBI Director Robert Mueller said Wednesday.
The HIG unit, which brings together experienced interrogators from across the intelligence agencies, is also led by the FBI, the same agency that questioned suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in the hours after he was taken into custody on a landed Detroit-bound airliner.
Several hours after Blair spoke, his office posted a brief note on its Web site saying his remarks had been misconstrued.
"The FBI interrogated Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab when they took him into custody," the statement said. "They received important intelligence at that time, drawing on the FBI's expertise in interrogation that will be available in the HIG once it is fully operational."
Abdulmutallab spoke for many hours to his FBI questioners, telling them he had been trained and equipped by al-Qaida operatives in Yemen, according to multiple law enforcement officials familiar with the case who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about it.
At a separate congressional hearing Wednesday, Mueller appeared to take issue with Blair's initial comments, saying there was not sufficient time immediately after the Christmas Day incident to use the mobile interrogation teams.
Blair's comments came as Republicans in Congress hammered the Obama administration for treating the near-disaster as a crime rather than an act of war.
In sometimes contentious Senate testimony, Blair accepted blame for the failings of Dec. 25 that led to Abdulmutallab alleged attempt to ignite a bomb hidden in his underwear as his Northwest airlines flight approached landing in Detroit.
"The overall counterterrorism system did not do its job," Blair said. "It's in large part my responsibility."
Blair told the Homeland Security Committee that he was not consulted on whether Abdulmutallab should have been questioned by the HIG unit to determine whether he should be charged in civilian or military court.
Some critics assert the government should have at least considered whether to delay placing the Nigerian in the civilian court system in order to press him for any useful intelligence before he gained the legal protections of a lawyer.
Many Republicans insist that major terror suspects such as Abdulmutallab should be tried in military courts because civilian courts do not have the capacity to handle such high-profile cases.
"It's crystal clear to me that somebody in the Department of Justice prematurely decided that they should treat this as a normal criminal case," Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said after the hearing. "Obviously no care and time was spent on this one, it was just, 'Boom!' a decision made quickly — way too quickly in my view."
Blair said the decision to file criminal charges against the suspect in federal court was made by the FBI agent in charge on the scene, "consulting with his headquarters and Department of Justice."
"Seemed logical to the people there, but it should have been taken using this HIG format at a higher level," Blair said.
Under questioning by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Michael Leiter, chief of the National Counterterrorism Center, said they also were not consulted before the decision was made to place the Nigerian suspect in the civilian judicial system.
"That is very troubling," Collins said. "It appears to me that we lost an opportunity to secure some valuable intelligence information, and that the process that Director Blair described should have been implemented in this case. And I think it's very troubling that it was not, and that three key intelligence officials were not asked their opinion."
The chief U.S. immigration investigator in Detroit said Wednesday he had no regrets over how Abdulmutallab was handled at the airport by his agency and the FBI.
Brian Moskowitz, special agent in charge with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said it was critical that agents immediately speak to Abdulmutallab to determine whether "there were other people on other planes planning to do the same."
"It was the right thing to do given our training and the events on the ground. ... Given the facts, I would do it again," Moskowitz told The Associated Press.
He declined to disclose any details about what Abdulmutallab said.
'Very fluid situation'
In a separate hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Mueller said Abdulmutallab made statements to FBI agents before being given his Miranda warnings.
The decision to arrest him was appropriate, Mueller said, "based on an ongoing, very fluid situation" that demanded speedy actions.
Sessions argued that the suspect should have been declared an enemy combatant and turned over to military authorities for interrogation.
"Intelligence is what saves lives," said Sessions, his voice rising. His view was echoed by Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., who declared at the Homeland Security hearing with Blair that the Nigerian "is a prisoner of war."
Blair said that while the U.S. has gotten better at stopping terrorist plots that are hatched over a lengthy period and require a money and logistical trail, it is less able to deal with cases like Abdulmutallab, allegedly a lone recruit who had a valid U.S. visa and no known prior link to terrorist acts.
Blair also said criteria for adding people to the government's "no fly" list was too legalistic and rigid. And he said that in recent years there has been pressure to shrink rather than expand the list because of a cascade of complaints from people getting "hassled" by authorities. "Why are you searching grandmothers?" was a too-common refrain, he said.
"Shame on us for giving in to that pressure," Blair said. Since the Christmas episode, the list has been expanded, he said.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., pressed hard for answers on why no high-level officials have been fired for the Christmas Day failures.
"We are reviewing all the individuals, and I think the president is reviewing my performance as well," said Leiter, the counterterrorism center director. "That is absolutely appropriate."
Blair gave no indication that he intended to quit or be fired because of the lapses he cited, but said:
"I don't feel good about it, and I'm fixing it."
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