Capitol Hill Republicans are accusing the White House of misusing classified information to score political points in the debate over how the U.S. government should handle captured terrorist suspects. In a letter sent on Thursday to President Obama, Sen. Kit Bond (Mo.), GOP vice chairman of theSenate intelligence committee, claimed that only 24 hours after the FBI confidentially notified his committee's "leadership" that underpants-bombing suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had started again to "provide critical information" to U.S. authorities, White House staff briefed the media "to announce Abdulmutallab's cooperation and to laud the events that led to his decision to cooperate with law enforcement personnel."
"It is deeply disturbing to me that the Intelligence Committee would be advised of sensitive information, and told of the vital imperative to keep such information secret for the sake of national security, only to see this information—less than twenty-four hours later—broadcast to the world from the White House," Bond wrote. "This distortion of the congressional notification process suggests that other considerations are taking precedence over keeping timely and sensitive informationaway from our enemies."
During his press briefing on Thursday, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs strongly rejected Bond's accusations and demanded that the senator apologize. "No briefing is done here or anywhere in this administration where classified information is used in a place where it shouldn't be. And I would suggest that somebody that alleges that when they know it doesn't happen owe people an apology," Gibbs said.
Bond's letter is the latest demonstration of the extent to which public discussion of terrorism cases in general, and the underpants-bombing investigation in particular, has become fodder for partisan political squabbling. According to Bond's account, intelligence-committee leaders "received notification" from the FBI sometime Monday that Abdulmutallab, after weeks of silence, was again showing a "willingness to provide critical information." Bond claimed that in notifying the committee of this, "FBI officials stressed the importance of not disclosing the fact of his cooperation in order to protect on-going and follow-on operations to neutralize additional threats to the American public." Bond reported that FBI Director Robert Mueller "personally stressed to me that keeping the fact of his cooperation quiet was vital to preventing future attacks against the United States." But Bond complained that within a day, the White House went out of its way to publicize what had been characterized to him as sensitive secrets.
A reconstruction by Declassified of how information about Abdulmutallab's cooperation became public suggests that while White House officials cannot be held responsible for initial news reports on the subject, they did subsequently release a detailed account of how his cooperation came about. According to our timeline, sometime during Tuesday afternoon, less than 24 hours after Senate intelligence leaders were confidentially briefed, Pete Williams, Justice Department correspondent for NBC News, reported that Abdulmutallab had resumed cooperating with the Feds. Shortly thereafter, the wire service Reuters published a similar report.
Around the same time, Senate intelligence-committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, who with Bond was attending a public hearing featuring several senior intelligence officials, was asking questions about terrorist interrogations. "It is also my understanding that Mr. Abdulmutallab has provided valuable information. Is that correct?" Feinstein asked, according to a hearing transcript. According to the transcript, an unidentified witness (whom several attendees identified as FBI Director Mueller) answered, "Yes." Feinstein then asked whether Abdulmutallab's interrogation "continues despite the fact that he has been Mirandized." The unidentified witness again responded, "Yes." Phil LaVelle, a spokesman for Feinstein, told NEWSWEEK: "Senator Feinstein asked a simple question that was answered without hesitation by the director of the FBI. The senator's question and the director's answer did not include any classified information, and any suggestion otherwise is wrong and not consistent with the record."
Declassified's reconstruction shows that while basic facts about Abdulmutallab's renewed cooperation with U.S. authorities was circulating among Washington journalists by the end of Feinstein's hearing, details of how the suspect had been persuaded to start talking again appear to have become public only as a result of a briefing given Tuesday evening to White House reporters by one or more "senior administration officials." A transcript of that session, which does not identify the briefers, shows the extent to which developments in the Abdulmutallab investigation were discussed in detail. A "senior administration official" described how, on New Year's Day, two FBI counterterrorism experts flew to Nigeria. While there, the official said, they conducted background interviews and "identified those family members who directly supported gaining Umar Farouk's cooperation and disagreed with his effort to murder innocent civilians."
On Jan. 17, the official said, the FBI agents arrived back in the United States accompanied by family members, who then met with officials of the Justice Department and FBI. With the relatives in tow, FBI officers then approached Abdulmutallab, who had stopped cooperating an hour after his arrest on Christmas Day, and persuaded him to resume talking. By the time both the Senate and the media were briefed on this, the senior official said, Abdulmutallab had been "cooperating for days."