ANDREA MITCHELL, HOST: Republican Senator Susan Collins is the ranking member of Homeland Security. She’s also serving both on Appropriations and Armed Services Committees. Senator, thanks very much for joining us. Let me show you what you said just only days ago. On Saturday you gave the Republican online comments in rebuttal to the President. Here’s what you said.
[CLIP]: “Less than one hour. That’s right, less than one hour. In fact, just 50 minutes. That’s the amount of time that the FBI spent questioning Abdulmutallab.
ANDREA: According to the timeline that we’ve been given though, that the FBI questioned him—first he was brought to the hospital for the burns—from the unexploded materials that had been in his underwear. Then he spoke with the FBI for 50 minutes before surgery. The FBI tried to renew questioning post-op but he refused. But they got a lot of useful information out of him. What we’re now learning is that doing this in the civilian procedure, in non-military courts—they were able to go to Nigeria, fly the family back, the family met with them, and he is now singing like a bird. Isn’t that the right way to have approached this?
SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R), MAINE: Well Andrea let me make two points. First, we received testimony from the Director of National Intelligence, from the Secretary of Homeland Security, from the Head of the National Counter-terrorism Center that they were not consulted about the decision to read the terrorist his Miranda rights and provide him a lawyer and charge him in the civilian court system. I think that’s a mistake. Nothing has changed. Second, the fact is that there was a long gap between Christmas Day and late last week when the terrorist started answering questions again. We will never know how much information we lost that we could have acted on during that time. Its not like Al Qaeda in Yemen just did nothing during that 6 week gap.
ANDREA: Well let me lay out a couple of things because what the White House would tell you, and what they’ve been briefing reporters on—and we know there was a briefing last night--first of all there was a national security meeting which involved all the principles--so everyone was consulted about the way to proceed and the decision—the eventual decision—was signed of on by the Secretary of Defense, by the CIA, by Dennis Blair, the National Intelligence Director—by just about all of them—by the Secretary of State—all of them signed off on the decision to proceed in a non-military way. Secondly, they say the Nigerian family would not have cooperated if this had not been done the way it was done.
Thirdly, they point out, even ignoring all of the precedents under the Bush Administration where they did proceed in the same exact fashion, the fact is that he would have been afforded an attorney because he was arrested in the United States. So even if they had proceeded under military procedures, he would have had a lawyer who was telling him, if not the Miranda rights, not to talk.
SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R), MAINE: You’ve asked me about 6 different questions in repeating the allegations that the White House has made. Look, the military detainee and trial system provides much more flexibility and would have allowed him to be questioned without a lawyer telling him what to reveal and what to conceal. That’s the situation that we’re in right now. As far as the consultation, I personally asked at the hearing, the Secretary of Homeland Security, the Director of National Intelligence, and the Director of the Counter Terrorism Center, and they said that they said they were not consulted. There’s a big difference between asking their judgment prior to the decision to charge Abdulmutallab in criminal court and telling them on January 5th, many days later, that the decision has been made. There is a difference between informing our top intelligence officials and consulting with them. The record is clear from our hearing that they were not consulted. In fact, the director of national intelligence said ‘duh, we should have used the new high value interrogation unit to carry out the questioning of Abdulmutallab.’ So that was clearly an error and it troubles me greatly that if someone tomorrow is arrested trying to blow up a plane coming to the United States, there’s no indication that this administration has learned anything from the Christmas Day bomber and that incident.
ANDREA: Let me ask you about the charge that you made at the outset of our interview which was that valuable intelligence could have been lost in the gap between when he clamed up and when he resumed talking to interrogators.
This is what Leon Panetta had to say about the possibility that there are other loners out there.
[CLIP]: There is the loner--the individual like Hassan, who, out of self-radicalization, decides that the moment has come to engage in an attack by himself. So it’s the lone wolf strategy that I think we have to pay attention to as a threat to this country.
ANDREA: Now in addition to that, all of the intelligence officials who testified yesterday in answer to Diane Feinstein’s question, said that they agreed that there was the possibility of a threat of another attempted attack between the US in the next 6 months. They seemed to be responding to something and to information that they have gotten from the Christmas Day bomber. Do you believe that—that we have lost—do you really believe that we have lost the ability to get valuable intelligence from him when he stopped talking, or do you accept what they are certainly putting out and hinting at—and you have access to intelligence that I certainly don’t have—that we have valuable information from him that others may have been launched from Yemen and that the situation has certainly been dialed up, that there are warnings out there that they’ve received in the past few days.
SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R), MAINE: Well first of all if you look at the period of time since the attacks on our country on September 11th of 2011, there have been repeated attempted terrorist attacks, so it is not surprising, nor is it new that in the next 3-6 months there almost certainly will be other possible attacks on our country that are attempted to be carried out. I’m glad to hear the administration finally admitting that Major Hassan is a terrorist attack—they’ve been avoiding saying that. There’s no doubt that there’s a threat from lone wolves who are inspired by and not directed by Al Qaeda. But that’s not what we have in this situation. With Abdulmutallab we have an individual who was trained by Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula. I was in Yemen last August, I came back and talked to the President personally, and I said that I felt that there was a growing threat in Yemen—a threat that the President, to his credit, was very much aware of. Now it seems evident to me that if we could have obtained actionable intelligence from Abdulmutallab immediately upon his arrest rather than talking to him for less than an hour, we would’ve been able to provide that information to our special forces, to Yemeni forces. We lost 5-6 weeks. During that time, it is self-evident that the Yemeni branch of Al Qaeda was not just sitting there twiddling their thumbs. I’m glad that Abdulmutallab is cooperating now—that is a very welcome development—but it does not change the lack of consultation—the unilateral decision of the government to treat him as a common criminal—nor does it change the fact that I believe we may have lost some time-sensitive information.
ANDREA: Senator, the Attorney General wrote you a letter—copied you on a letter that he sent to Mitch McConnell after the minority leader really leveled some tough charges as well today. In this letter from Eric Holder to you, he says, “Since the September 112001 attacks, the practice of the US Government followed by prior and current administrations without a single exception has been to arrest and detain under Federal Criminal Law all terror suspects who are apprehended inside the United States. The prior administration adopted policies expressly endorsing this approach. Is that true?
SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R), MAINE: Well first of all, I haven’t seen that letter, and it’s very telling that the Attorney General responding to a letter that Senator Joe Lieberman and I sent to him, that he released his reply to the press before I got to see it. But putting that aside, let me make two comments. First of all, Jose Padilla was held as an enemy combatant despite being an American and on American soil for a period a time. He then ultimately was charged in civilian court. Second, the previous administration made some mistakes. For example, they released individuals from Guantanamo who went back to Yemen and rejoined the fight—that was a mistake. I don’t think that this administration should repeat mistakes made by the previous administration. I don’t agree with the approach of the previous administration on some points, but the point is that we are at war with Al Qaeda and we need to act as if we are at war with Al Qaeda. There is a difference between a foreign terrorist attempting to murder hundreds of Americans and a common criminal. There’s a big difference and the Department of Justice should not be making unilateral decisions. That’s why I’ve introduced a bipartisan bill that would require the Department of Justice to consult with our top intelligence officials and with the Secretary of Defense before making a decision to put a terror suspect into the civilian court system. This doesn’t mean that at times that might not be the right decision, but there certainly should be consultation first and there was not in this case.
ANDREA: I just wanted to ask you about Iran, quickly. This was our conversation with Joe Biden yesterday when I asked him whether these executions in Iran and the prospect of demonstrations and actions against political prisoners and protestors in coming days should lead us to rethink our policy and lead us to think about regime change. This is what the Vice President had to say.
[CLIP] BIDEN: I think the people of Iran are thinking about—the very people marching—are thinking about regime change. When they acted as they did, when the first protest broke out and people were brutalized, they lost their moral credibility in their own country and around the region. They are sowing the seeds of their own destruction in terms of being able to hold onto power.
ANDREA: Ahmadinejad, President of Iran, has suggested perhaps reopening that nuclear exchange and suggesting a prisoner swap for our three American hikers there. But do you think that time has run out for any kind of diplomatic engagement with Iran?
SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R), MAINE: Clearly this administration tried a new approach of engagement with Iran. I personally think they have very little to show from that approach. I think its time to work with our allies around the world and come up with some tough sanctions for Iran. I’m very concerned that the Iranian government is pursuing not only a repressive policy against dissidence but also continuing its quest for a nuclear weapon. And I know the administration’s also very concerned about that, but it appears that the President’s efforts to engage Iran have not worked—I wish they had worked. And now it seems to me that we need to work with our allies to come up with a tough sanctions regime.
ANDREA: Susan Collins, thanks so much for being with us today.
SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R), MAINE: Thanks, Andrea.