WASHINGTON – U.S. Senators Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., Chairman, and Susan Collins, R-Me., Ranking Member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Thursday introduced legislation that would require that U.S. intelligence officials be consulted following a suspected foreign terrorist’s detention by the United States. These officials include the Director of National Intelligence, the Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, the Secretary of Homeland Security, and the Secretary of Defense.
The “Securing Terrorist Intelligence Act” would address a serious error that occurred in the handling of the so-called Christmas Day terrorist, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Abdulmutallab provided valuable information to law enforcement officials in the hours immediately following his capture. The decision was then made to read him a Miranda warning and shortly after that, he was provided a lawyer who advised him to cease answering questions, thwarting authorities’ attempts to gather more terrorism-related intelligence. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Tex., is also introducing a companion bill in the House today.
“Since 9/11, improved collaboration among federal agencies involved in the fight against terrorism has been central to protecting the American people from attack,” Chairman Lieberman said. “That collaboration shouldn’t stop once a suspect has been arrested. But that’s exactly what happened in the case of the Christmas Day bomber, who was questioned and placed within the civilian judicial system without consultation with the Director of National Intelligence, the Secretary of Homeland Security, and others who work full time against terrorism. When a suspected terrorist is captured, our first mission must be to secure any information that terrorist might have about additional attacks. Our legislation would require the Attorney General to consult with the Director of National Intelligence, the Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, and the Secretaries of Homeland Security and Defense before initiating action that may adversely affect our efforts in the global fight against terrorism. This type of collaboration will help maximize the government’s efforts to protect the American people from terrorist attacks.”
During a Homeland Security Committee hearing in January 2010, Senator Collins learned during her questioning of witnesses that none of the nation’s top U.S. intelligence officials were consulted before the Justice Department decided to try Abdulmutallab in civilian court.
Senator Collins said this mistake “may have prevented the collection of valuable intelligence about future terrorist threats to the United States. Frankly, I was stunned to learn that the decision to place the captured terrorist into the U.S. civilian criminal court system had been made without the input or the knowledge of any of those top intelligence officials: the Director of National Intelligence, the Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, and the Secretary of Homeland Security.
“These officials were never consulted by the Department of Justice. The decision was made without any regard for their expert opinions on the subject.”
“The President’s policy of treating terrorists like common criminals has failed. Giving terrorists the same rights as American citizens ignores the seriousness of the threat from al Qaeda and other foreign terrorist groups,” said Chairman Smith. “These are acts of war, not isolated incidents of crime. Foreign terrorists should be treated like enemy combatants and interrogated by intelligence experts to obtain crucial information about future attacks. Anything less risks the safety and security of the American people.”
Specifically, the “Securing Terrorist Intelligence Act” would require the Attorney General to consult with the Director of National Intelligence, the Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, the Secretary of Homeland Security, and the Secretary of Defense, before initiating a custodial interrogation of foreign terrorists or filing civilian criminal charges against them.
If there is a disagreement between the Attorney General and these officials regarding the appropriate approach to the detention and interrogation of the foreign terrorist, then only the President may direct the initiation of the identified civilian law enforcement actions.
This legislation would not deprive the President of any investigative tool. It would not preclude a decision to charge a foreign terrorist in our military tribunal system or in our civilian criminal justice system. It would simply require that the Attorney General coordinate with our top intelligence officials before making a decision that could foreclose the collection of additional intelligence information on the suspect.
This consultation requirement is not unprecedented. In espionage cases, Congress has already recognized that when valuable intelligence is at stake our national security should trump decisions based solely on prosecution protocols. This requirement must be extended to the most significant threat facing our nation – terrorism.