Panetta on Decision To Read Underwear Bomber Miranda Rights

October 7th, 2014

You may recall that on Christmas Day 2009, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to detonate explosives in his underwear on a flight into Detroit. (Justice Kagan was asked about this, and she deftly deflected the question by saying she was eating Chinese food that day). After Abdulmutallab’s  plot was foiled (by the people on the plain, not the TSA), a decision was made to read him his Miranda rights, thus ending the ability to question him without a lawyer present.

In his new memoir, Leon Panetta comments on the decision to read Abdulmutallab his rights:

We were lucky in this instance. Not only did alert passengers prevent a catastrophe but Abdulmutallab turned out to be an important source of information. Immediately after his capture, he was interrogated to determine whether he was part of a larger plot along the lines of 9/ 11. Those interrogations were done under the national security exception that allows federal agents to grill a suspect without warning him of his right to remain silent or to have a lawyer present. Abdulmutallab talked and gave up some information, though not much. Then, convinced that no larger plot was under way that day, the FBI read him his Miranda rights, and he stopped talking.

That became a cause célèbre, as conservative critics of the administration, led by the predictable Dick Cheney , seized on the decision to read him his rights as proof of Obama’s naiveté.

Panetta reveals that there was a vigorous debate in the Administration after the fact about whether it was necessary to Mirandize him.

Within the administration, the decision to read Abdulmutallab his rights was hotly debated afterward. Some, including me, argued that there was simply no constitutional way to arrest a person within our borders and indefinitely deny that person the rights afforded by the Constitution ; others argued that we needed more flexible rules to protect the country from attack, that enemy combatants, even within the United States, were fundamentally different from criminals. Congress couldn’t resist getting in the act, with various members floating ideas for depriving anyone accused of terrorism of their most basic rights. Thankfully, the furor gradually subsided without any fundamental rejiggering of constitutional protections.

Perhaps the most fascinating part, was that after he was Mirandized, he started talking “at length.”

Less noted was what happened after Abdulmutallab was informed of his right to remain silent and to have a lawyer. After first shutting up, he then relented and talked at length. It was Abdulmutallab who revealed that Anwar al-Awlaki had personally sent him on his terrorist mission. And it was Abdulmutallab who told FBI agents that the person who made the bomb that he carried in his underwear that day was Ibrahim al-Asiri, brother of the young man who had tried to kill Prince bin Nayef. Those statements helped us better understand the workings of Al Qaeda in Yemen and ultimately led to Awlaki’s elimination. Importantly, investigators coaxed those admissions from Abdulmutallab without duress. He was not denied sleep or stripped naked, much less waterboarded. His confessions were the result of patient, clever interrogation of a suspect who had been read his rights and who nevertheless elected to cooperate with skillful questioners— proof that civil liberties and expert, aggressive investigations can and do coexist.

So he was offered a lawyer, and didn’t ask for one. Sometime seems amiss there.”Clever interrogation” indeed.

Also, the underwear bomber revealed that Anwar al-Awlki (remember him?) sent him on the mission! Small world!