AG Holder’s Letter to Senator McConnel et al concerning Abdulmutallab

* AG Holder’s Letter to Senator McConnell et al concerning Abdulmutallab (Feb. 3, 2010)

A very interesting document released by DOJ today: a response by AG Holder to a request for information from a group of senators concerning the detention and interrogation of Abdulmutallab.  The document (5 pages) is posted here.

Key excerpts (highlights added):

In the days following December 25 – including during a meeting with the President and other senior members of his national security team on January 5 – high-level discussions ensued within the Administration in which the possibility of detaining Mr. Abdulmutallab under the law of war was explicitly discussed. No agency supported the use of law of war detention for Abdulmutallab, and no agency has since advised the Department of Justice that an alternative course of action should have been, or should now be, pursued.

many defendants will talk and cooperate with law enforcement agents after being informed of their right to remain silent and to consult with an attorney. Examples include L’Houssaine Kherchtou, who was advised of his Miranda rights, cooperated with the government and provided critical intelligence on al-Qaeda, including their interest in using piloted planes as suicide bombers, and Nuradin Abdi, who provided significant information after being repeatedly advised of his Miranda rights over a two week period. During an international terrorism investigation regarding Operation Crevice, law enforcement agents gained valuable intelligence regarding al-Qaeda military commanders and suspects involved in bombing plots in the U.K. from a defendant who agreed to cooperate after being advised of, and waiving his Miranda rights. Other terrorism subjects cooperate voluntarily with law enforcement without the need to provide Miranda warnings because of the non-custodial nature of the interview or cooperate after their arrest and agree to debriefings in the presence of their attorneys. Many of these subjects have provided vital intelligence on al-Qaeda, including several members of the Lackawanna Six, described above, who were arrested and provided information about the Al Farooq training camp in Afghanistan; and Mohammad Warsame, who voluntarily submitted to interviews with the FBI and provided intelligence on his contacts with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. There are other examples which I am happy to provide upon request. There are currently other terrorism suspects who have cooperated and are providing valuable intelligence information whose identities cannot be publicly disclosed.

The initial questioning of Abdulmutallab was conducted without Miranda warnings under a public safety exception that has been recognized by the courts. Subsequent questioning was conducted with Miranda warnings, as required by FBI policy, after consultation between FBI agents in the field and at FBI Headquarters, and career prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s Office and at the Department of Justice. Neither advising Abdulmutallab of his Miranda rights nor granting him access to counsel prevents us from obtaining intelligence from him, however….

Some have argued that had Abdulmutallab been declared an enemy combatant, the government could have held him indefinitely without providing him access to an attorney. But the government’s legal authority to do so is far from clear. In fact, when the Bush administration attempted to deny Jose Padilla access to an attorney, a federal judge in New York rejected that position, ruling that Padilla must be allowed to meet with his lawyer. Notably, the judge in that case was Michael Mukasey, my predecessor as Attorney General. In fact, there is no court-approved system currently in place in which suspected terrorists captured inside the United States can be detained and held without access to an attorney; nor is there any known mechanism to persuade an uncooperative individual to talk to the government that has been proven more effective than the criminal justice system. Moreover, while in some cases defense counsel may advise their clients to remain silent, there are situations in which they properly and wisely encourage cooperation because it is in their client’s best interest, given the substantial sentences they might face.

Lead Author

Robert M. Chesney
Robert M. Chesney is Charles I. Francis Professor in Law at UT-Austin School of Law. Chesney is a national security law specialist, with a particular interest in problems associated with terrorism. Professor Chesney recently served in the Justice Department in connection with the Detainee Policy Task Force created by Executive Order 13493. He is a member of the Advisory Committee of the American Bar Association's Standing Committee on Law and National Security, a senior editor for the Journal of National Security Law & Policy, an associate member of the Intelligence Science Board, a non-resident senior fellow of the Brookings Institution, a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and a member of the American Law Institute. Professor Chesney has published extensively on topics ranging from detention and prosecution in the counterterrorism context to the states secrets privilege. He served previously as chair of the Section on National Security Law of the Association of American Law Schools and as editor of the National Security Law Report (published by the American Bar Association's Standing Committee on Law and National Security). His upcoming projects include two books under contract with Oxford University Press, one concerning the evolution of detention law and policy and the other examining the judicial role in national security affairs.
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