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Obama Officials on Shahzad Case: We Did It Right

Obama administration officials are touting what they say is the continuing cooperation of Times Square bombing suspect Faisal Shahzad as evidence that nonaggressive interrogation techniques and procedures that were used in his case can be at least as effective as more controversial—and violent—Bush administration counterterrorism tactics.
A preliminary official account of events following Shahzad’s arrest has been provided to Declassified by a government official who asked for anonymity because the inquiry is continuing. After being taken off his Dubai-bound flight shortly before it was due to leave the gate, Shahzad initially was “questioned extensively” without being read his rights, according to the account. The questioning was conducted under a “publi-safety exemption to Miranda” allowing investigators to question suspects without reading them their rights if they believe the suspects might have information that might help avert an imminent threat to public safety. Obama administration officials were castigated by some Republicans for not using this provision to question Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian who tried to blow up a Detroit-bound flight last Christmas with a bomb stashed in his underpants. The Republicans claimed that by Mirandizing him so quickly after his arrest, government investigators might have lost the opportunity to obtain intelligence that might have helped identify co-conspirators or foil other plots.

The account does not say how long Shahzad was questioned before being read his rights, stating only that it happened “when no imminent threat” was found. In any case he waived those rights, according to the account, evidently meaning that he said he would go on answering questions without the presence of a lawyer. The account adds that he “continued talking and has continued talking ever since.” News reports have offered contradictory versions of what Shahzad has been telling interrogators, alleging among other things that he plotted the bombing on his own, without co-conspirators; that he did it because he was outraged by U.S. missile attacks on terrorist targets in Pakistan; that he was distressed over family problems; and that his family was under threat by militants unless he carried out the attack. A senior law-enforcement official confirms to Declassified that Shahzad has indeed indicated that at least part of his motivation was anger at U.S. military involvement in Muslim countries.

In their postmortem criticisms of the administration's handling of the Christmas underpants attack, Republicans also lambasted the White House and Justice Department for not thoroughly consulting with intelligence and Homeland Security agencies before reading Abdulmutallab his Miranda rights. In Shahzad’s case, however, a law enforcement official says: "DOJ/FBI briefed National Security Staff, DHS [Department of Homeland Security], NCTC [National Counterterrorism Center], CIA, and DNI [Director of National Intelligence] on the interrogation and consulted those agencies on the possibility that a Miranda warning would be provided. There were no objections."
Early on in Shahzad’s questioning, specialists were called in from the newly formed High Value Detainee Interrogation Group (HIG). The White House has limited the interagency unit’s interrogation methods to conventional techniques consistent with Army regulations prohibiting torture, with the object of replacing at least in part a controversial secret CIA program that sometimes used "enhanced" interrogation techniques in questioning terror suspects. As we reported here some confusion has surrounded HIG’s mission since it was hastily made operational in the wake of the failed Christmas underpatnts attack. The group was not deployed, for example, to assist in questioning of Mullah Baradar, the Afghan Taliban's second-ranking leader, who was captured in Pakistan earlier this year. But the law-enforcement official says HIG was enlisted along with other intelligence offices to help in Shahzad's questioning.
Administration officials seem eager to head off Republican critics this time around. They’re willing to discuss details of Shahzad’s interrogation as a way of showing that they got rapid results and considerable cooperation using conventional law-enforcement methods (although tweaked a bit in light of the underpants case). Prosecutors wasted no time before charging Shahzad in the civilian federal court system, forestalling demands by conservative administration critics that all terrorist suspects should be processed through special military courts or tribunals rather than in the normal criminal-justice system.
Because Shahzad has waived his rights to an attorney, and because he’s continuing to cooperate, it remains uncertain when he might make his first court appearance, according to two law-enforcement officials. Earlier this week officials indicated that he would be brought before a federal magistrate in Manhattan on Monday afternoon, only hours after his arrest. But although two dozen journalists—including Declassified—showed up for the anticipated hearing (and there were rumors that Shahzad might have arrived at the courthouse), he never appeared, and no hearing has yet been scheduled.

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