Attorney General Eric Holder told reporters Tuesday that accused New York City terror bomber Faisal Shahzad had provided "useful" intelligence to authorities after he was escorted off an airplane at John F. Kennedy Airport last night and questioned by FBI agents.
But some U.S. law-enforcement and intelligence officials are skeptical about precisely how cooperative the suspect, Shahzad, has been, Declassified has learned.
While reportedly admitting that he had been trained in bombmaking during a five-month trip to northwest Pakistan last year, Shahzad has also insisted that he acted alone and had no co-conspirators when he tried to set off a car bomb in Times Square last Saturday night. "There isn't anybody who believes that," said one U.S. intelligence official who has been briefed on the investigation. (NBC reports that Pakistani intelligence officials have detained five suspects in Karachi in connection with the Times Square bomb.)
The question of how forthcoming Shahzad ultimately is may be key to whether the Obama administration's management of the incident creates anything like the political uproar that followed the Christmas Day attempt by a Nigerian suspect to blow up a Northwest airlines flight headed to Detroit.
Already, Republican critics (like GOP Sen. John McCain and New York Congressman Peter King) are questioning whether Shahzad should have been declared an enemy combatant and transferred to military custody.
But there is little doubt that the administration's handling of the two cases bears some surface similarities—as well as important differences.
FBI Deputy Director John Pistole told reporters at a Justice Department press conference that when Shahzad was initially questioned by the New York City Joint Terrorism Task Force, he was not read his Miranda rights to remain silent under a longstanding federal rule that allows police to question suspects if they believe there is an imminent threat to public safety.
Only later, after he was taken to a new location, was Shahzad, a naturalized U.S. citizen since last year, read his legal rights. But unlike Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Christmas Day underpants bomber who clammed up after being "Mirandized," Shahzad waived his right to an attorney and continued to talk, U.S. law-enforcement officials told Declassified.
In the questioning of Shahzad, Obama admiinistraiton officials also used—in a "support" role, said one official—experts from a special interagency High Value Interrogation Group (or HIG) that was created last year by the White House to handle the interrogations of important terror suspects. Members of the HIG, such as behavioral science experts and other specialialists, helped "inform" the questioning of Shahzad, the official said. The failure to invoke the HIG—because it had not yet become operational—in the questioning of Abdulmutallab was another source of GOP criticism after the Christmas Day incident.
But the major source of controversy over the Christmas Day bombing was the Obama administration's decision to treat him as a criminal suspect rather than transfer him to military custody and try him before a military tribunal. That option was simply unavailable with Shahzad because of his U.S. citizenship, Justice Department officials said. Military commissions by law can only be used to prosecute non-U.S. citizens.
After a harrowing few days, administration officials are breathing easy, satisfied that they were able to move quickly, pull together disparate sources of intelligence and evidence, and stop Shahzad before he fled the country.
But they may have a way to go before they will be able to truly proclaim the case a law enforcement and intelligence success.