Republican lawmakers are denying a charge made by top White House counterterrorism official John Brennan that they were briefed about -- and did not object to -- the decision to offer full American constitutional rights to accused Detroit bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.
On "Meet the Press," Brennan said that on Christmas night, just hours after Abdulmutallab tried to blow up Northwest Airlines flight 253, Brennan called GOP Senators Mitch McConnell and Christopher Bond, as well as Republican Representatives John Boehner and Peter Hoekstra, and told them that Abdulmutallab was in FBI custody. "None of those individuals raised any concerns with me at that point," Brennan said. "They didn't say, Is he going into military custody? Is he going to be Mirandized?"
Each of the lawmakers strongly denies Brennan's account. A spokesman for McConnell says, "During a brief call from the White House, Sen. McConnell was given a heads up that Abdulmutallab was in custody, but little else. He wasn’t told of the decision to Mirandize Abdulmutallab."
A spokesman for Boehner says, "On an unclassified/non-secure call to Boehner's cell phone that was very short, John Brennan informed Boehner that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was in custody. The call imparted no other substantive information and Brennan did not inform Boehner that the administration had read Abdulmutallab his Miranda rights." And Bond released a statement saying that Brennan "never told me any of plans to Mirandize the Christmas Day bomber -- if he had I would told him the administration was making a mistake."
In a conversation Sunday afternoon, Hoekstra, the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, angrily denied Brennan's statement. The possibility of Mirandizing Abdulmutallab "never came up" in a call that Hoekstra describes as a "quick update." Hoekstra recalls Brennan calling between 7:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. on Christmas, which would have been before Abdulmutallab was informed of his rights. "I think I talked to Brennan before they did it," Hoekstra says. "He could have told me that, and asked me what I felt about it -- but he didn't."
Hoekstra says if Brennan had brought up the subject of Miranda rights, then he, Hoekstra, would have discussed the issue with legal counsel from the Intelligence Committee. "If Brennan had called and said, 'Congressman, we're contemplating a legal strategy here,'" Hoekstra says, "the first thing I would have done is call up…my legal counsel and some other people and said, 'Hey, is this a sound strategy or not?' It never came up."
All the lawmakers describe Brennan's call as being very short; one recalls it as less than a minute. And all describe it as a heads-up, and not a briefing or an exchange of views. Brennan, however, told another story. This is his full statement, beginning with a question from NBC's David Gregory:
GREGORY: When you briefed some Republicans about how he was going to be treated, were they on board with the administration's decision?
BRENNAN: On Christmas night, I called a number of senior members of Congress. I spoke to Senators McConnell and Bond, I spoke to Representatives Boehner and Hoekstra. I explained to them that he was in FBI custody, that Mr. Abdulmutallab was in fact talking, that he was cooperating at that point. They knew that in FBI custody means that there's a process that you follow, as far as Mirandizing and presenting him in front of a magistrate. None of those individuals raised any concerns with me at that point. They didn't say, Is he going into military custody? Is he going to be Mirandized? They were very appreciative of the information. We told them we would keep them informed, and that's what we did. So there's been quite a bit of an outcry after the fact, where again, I'm just very concerned on behalf of the counterterrorism professionals throughout our government, that politicians continue to make this a political football and are using it for whatever political or partisan purposes.
Parsing Brennan's statement, Republicans believe he chose his words very carefully. Brennan says he told the GOP lawmakers that Abdulmutallab "was cooperating at that point," which suggests that Brennan called the lawmakers before Abdulmutallab stopped talking. In addition, Brennan did not call the lawmakers back later in the evening to say that, after a 50-minute interrogation, Abdulmutallab was no longer cooperating. It also appears that Brennan relied on the lawmakers to surmise that Abdulmutallab had been given the Miranda warning, since they were told that he was in FBI custody. "Brennan didn't say, 'I told them that," says Hoekstra. "He's saying, 'They should have known.'"
The clashing accounts are sure to result in some heated exchanges in coming days. All the GOP lawmakers say that the White House, through Brennan, is leveling the charge "to shift the focus away from the fact that their bad decisions gave terrorists in Yemen a weeks-long head start," in the words of the McConnell spokesman.