Caught with its pants down

The Obama administration made critical mistakes in its initial questioning of underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab that this nation can ill afford to repeat.

The administration can’t claim the system worked in the case of Abdulmutallab, because there is no system. There’s no defined procedure for dealing with terrorist suspects like him. Interrogators still aren’t sure how to treat a terrorist suspect once in custody — as a criminal defendant or an enemy combatant.


Abdulmutallab is the 23-year-old son of a wealthy Nigerian banker who burned his crotch when he unsuccessfully tried to set off an explosive on Christmas Day while aboard a Detroit-bound Northwest jetliner.

According to the Associated Press, Abdulmutallab started talking about the foiled attack immediately after his arrest at the Detroit Metro Airport on Dec. 25. He even told a doctor about trying to set off his bomb.

When FBI agents arrived at the hospital, Abdulmutallab revealed more information, including his training by al-Qaeda in Yemen. That interview lasted about 50 minutes.

When agents approached Abdulmutallab five hours later, after he had been treated for injuries, he was read his Miranda rights. Naturally, he chose to remain silent. Was the Miranda decision the result of hours of serious deliberation at the highest levels of U.S. counterterrorism on the merits of criminal vs. military justice? No. The Justice Department appears to have acted unilaterally.

As the country would learn in testimony before Congress, no one asked the director of national intelligence how to proceed. Or the director of the national counterterrorism center. Or the homeland security boss. Or even the head of the FBI.

Worse, the interrogation unit that the administration had promised early last year to deal with high-level terrorists isn’t even up and running.

This embarrassing and potentially dangerous failure to communicate has brought justified bipartisan criticism from congressional leaders and the former heads of the 9/11 commission.

Reasonable people can disagree about the merits of criminal vs. military justice. But there should be no disagreement on this: Terrorist suspects like Abdulmutallab should be scrutinized by the highest level of intelligence and counterterrorism officials, whose primary mission is to protect the homeland and the American people.

It’s President Obama’s job to make sure that’s understood.