WASHINGTON — Under growing criticism from Congress, the Justice Department defended on Thursday its decision to interrogate and arrest as a criminal rather than an enemy combatant a man suspected of trying to blow up himself and a planeload of airline passengers on Christmas Day.
The department said it got actionable intelligence from him and would continue to do so even as he faces a trial.
The suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was arrested and interrogated by the FBI before being read his rights not to incriminate himself and have to a lawyer. Normally such declarations are required before a case can be built.
"Those who now argue that a different action should have been taken in this case were notably silent when dozens of terrorists were successfully prosecuted in federal court by the previous administration," Justice Department spokesman Matthew Miller said.
Miller's statement came as the senior members of the Senate Intelligence Committee said the attorney general should confer with intelligence officials before placing suspected terrorists under arrest and putting them into the civilian justice system.
The FBI was following standard procedure, but Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, and the vice chairman, Republican Christopher Bond, said the suspect might have yielded more intelligence had he been treated as an enemy combatant rather than as a criminal with full constitutional rights.
The FBI says Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian, tried to destroy Northwest Airlines Flight 253, which was carrying nearly 300 people en route from Amsterdam to Detroit, Michigan, by injecting chemicals into a package of explosives concealed in his underwear. He has pleaded not guilty to a six-count indictment.
Miller said Abdulmutallab would continue to be interrogated.
"Trying Abdulmutallab in federal court does not prevent us from obtaining additional intelligence from him. He has already provided intelligence, and we will continue to work to gather intelligence from him, as the department has done repeatedly in past cases," Miller said.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, every terror suspect apprehended in the United States, including shoe bomber Richard Reid, has been handled the same way, Miller said. Reid is serving a life sentence for trying to blow an airliner with explosives inside a shoe.
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