A long slog gives way to a ‘good week’ for U.S. Justice Department

May 6, 2010

After months of trying times, U.S. Justice Department officials are walking with a little spring in their step, describing it as a “good week” after the terrorism suspect accused of trying to detonate a car bomb in the heart of New York’s busy Times Square was nabbed only two days after the failed attack.

TIMESSQUARE/The department has been under fire since last fall over issues ranging from Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to prosecute the accused plotters of the Sept. 11 attacks in the heart of Manhattan to closing the military prison at the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

And when a Nigerian man was able to sneak a bomb hidden in his underwear aboard a U.S. commercial jet, the dull roar of anger became white hot rage by both Republicans and President Barack Obama’s fellow Democrats about how the administration handled the situation.

A presidential investigation was undertaken, intelligence agencies admitted they missed some clear warnings about a pending attack and who might try to carry it out, and scores of congressional hearings were called to delve into how Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab got on the plane and the response.

Republicans slammed the White House and Justice Department when details about Abdulmutallab’s interrogation leaked out — that it lasted about 50 minutes before he was wheeled into surgery and then later read his Miranda rights entitling him to remain silent and to a lawyer. He later began cooperating with authorities again.

Republicans and some Democrats argued that foreigners should not be afforded full U.S. constitutional rights and should also be tried in special military commissions if facing terrorism-related charges. They also argued that intelligence was lost because he was given Miranda rights and stopped talking. Further, they used it to also seize on the plan to prosecute the 9/11 suspects in New York and tried to block funding to bring them to the heart of New York City — for trial.

That all left the White House scrambling to decide where to prosecute the Sept. 11 cases. They have apparently backed off the idea of going through traditional criminal courts and may move the trials to the special military commissions, though a final decision has not been made.

When the Times Square attack unfolded over the weekend and the suspect was tracked down in just over 53 hours, there were a few complaints that he was read his Miranda rights, though the suspect Faisal Shahzad is a naturalized American citizen and is TIMESSQUARE/entitled to them.

At two congressional hearings this week there was only muted criticism, mostly centered around why Shahzad was able to board an Emirates flight to Dubai without being stopped despite being on the so-called No Fly list which is meant to block him from plane travel.

It turned out that the airlines are only required to check the list once a day, forcing the Transportation Security Administration to quickly order airlines to check more frequently when they receive an emergency alert about a potential terrorism suspect.

Democratic Senator Barbara Mikulski praised the Obama administration for cracking the bombing case within a couple of days, but had harsh words about the watchlists. “We’re really grouchy about the watchlist and what happened,” she said. “Talking about watchlists is like chalk on a blackboard.”

Holder went to the Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing for the Justice Department’s fiscal 2011 budget on Thursday, a prime opportunity Republicans have used to raise concerns or address any problems they have with the administration’s handling of national security matters.

This time was different, only one Republican showed up, Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. And it was only after an hour into the hearing that she raised the issue of the Times Square attack and she mostly focused on the U.S. watchlists.

“Tell me why we were relying on that watchlist, on that No Fly list, was there not sufficient information to cause further questioning?”  Murkowski said. “I think people are really concerned about how he was able to board that aircraft.”

The issue of Miranda warnings also came up, but by Democrats who gently asked whether that impeded the investigation, to which Holder said no. He emphasized that Shahzad was interviewed for hours without receiving his Miranda rights under a special exception to the law. Holder also pointed out that even after he was read his rights, Shahzad was cooperating.

“Mr. Shahzad is continuing to cooperate with us,” he said.

- Photo credits: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque (Holder at news conference); Mike Segar (Shahzad’s Connecticut home)

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