Former US President Barack Obama has revealed how opposition figures tried to use the case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian “underwear bomber”, against his re-election bid in 2012.
In ‘A Promised Land’, the first volume of his memoirs due for release on Tuesday, Obama expressed regrets that he did not break his vacation in Hawaii to address Americans immediately after Abdulmutallab’s failed bid to bomb a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day in 2009.
This, he said, was used by his opponents and critical commentators to accuse him of not caring more about his vacation than he did about threat to American lives.
Abdulmutallab, then 23, had unsuccessfully tried to denote a bomb wired to his underwear aboard the flight that was about landing in Detriot, Michigan — with 289 people on board.
The smoke and flames from under his blanket alerted a passenger who restrained him before the fire was put out and the aircraft landed safely.
He was sentenced to four life terms plus 50 years without parole on February 16, 2012.
Obama wrote: “Having just arrived in Hawaii with Michelle and the girls for a much-needed ten-day break, I spent most of the next several days on the phone with my national security team and the FBI, trying to determine who exactly Abdulmutallab was, whom he’d been working with, and why both airport security and our terrorist watch list hadn’t kept him from boarding a U.S.-bound plane.
“What I failed to do in those first seventy-two hours, though, was follow my initial instincts, which were to get on television, explain to the American people what had happened, and assure them that it was safe to travel. My team had made a sensible argument for waiting: It was important, they said, for the president to have all the facts before making a statement to the public. And yet my job involved more than just managing the government or getting the facts right. The public also looked to the president to explain a difficult and often scary world.
“Rather than coming off as prudent, my absence from the airwaves made me seem unengaged, and soon we were taking incoming fire from across the political spectrum, with less charitable commentators suggesting that I cared more about my tropical vacation than I did about threats against the homeland. It didn’t help that my usually unflappable secretary of homeland security, Janet Napolitano, briefly stumbled in one of her TV interviews, responding to a question about where security had broken down by saying that ‘the system worked.’
“Our mishandling of the so-called Underwear Bomber played into Republican accusations that Democrats were soft on terrorism, weakening my hand on issues like closing the detention center at Guantánamo Bay. And like the other gaffes and unforced errors that occurred during my first year, this one no doubt contributed to my slide in the polls.”
‘WHY IN GOD’S NAME WOULD YOU STOP QUESTIONING A TERRORIST?!’
Obama, a Democrat, said he was accused by his Republican opponents of treating terrorists like ordinary criminals — which he said “did resonate with a lot of voters”.
The Abdumutallab case, he said, did not help matters.
He wrote: “In handling that case, both the Justice Department and the FBI had followed procedure. At Eric Holder’s direction, and with the concurrence of the Pentagon and the CIA, federal officials had arrested the Nigerian-born Abdulmutallab as a criminal suspect as soon as the Northwest Airlines plane landed in Detroit and had transported him to receive medical care.
“Because the top priority was ascertaining that there were no further immediate threats to public safety—other bombers on other planes, for example—the first team of FBI agents questioning Abdulmutallab did so without reading him the Miranda warnings, using a well- established legal precedent that allowed law enforcement an exception when neutralizing an active threat. Speaking to agents for nearly an hour, the suspect provided valuable intelligence about his al-Qaeda connections, his training in Yemen, the source of his explosive device, and what he knew of other plots. He was later read his rights and given access to counsel.
“According to our critics, we had practically set the man free. ‘Why in God’s name would you stop questioning a terrorist?!’ former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani declared on TV. Joe Lieberman insisted that Abdulmutallab qualified as an enemy combatant and, as such, should have been turned over to military authorities for interrogation and detention. And in the heated Massachusetts Senate race that was going on at the time, Republican Scott Brown used our handling of the case to put Democrat Martha Coakley on the defensive.
“The irony, as Eric Holder liked to point out, was that the Bush administration had handled almost every case involving terrorist suspects apprehended on U.S. soil (including Zacarias Moussaoui, one of the planners behind 9/11) in exactly the same way. They’d done so because the U.S. Constitution demanded it: In the two instances where the Bush administration had declared terrorist suspects arrested in the United States ‘enemy combatants’ subject to indefinite detention, the federal courts had stepped in and forced their return to the criminal system.
“Moreover, following the law actually worked. Bush’s Justice Department had successfully convicted more than a hundred terrorist suspects, with sentences at least as tough as the few that had been handed down through military commissions. Moussaoui, for example, was serving multiple life sentences in federal prison. These lawful criminal prosecutions had in the past drawn lavish praise from conservatives, including Mr. Giuliani.”
Obama quoted Holder as saying: “It wouldn’t be so aggravating… if Giuliani and some of these other critics actually believed the stuff they’re saying. But he’s a former prosecutor. He knows better. It’s just shameless.”
Despite the criticisms, Obama secured a second term by defeating Mitt Romney, the Republican Party candidate, in the 2012 election.