US intelligence chief admits blunder

America's intelligence chief made a blunder of his own after he admitted top-level errors over the handling of the Christmas Day plane bomb attempt.

America's intelligence chief made a blunder of his own after he admitted top-level errors over the handling of the Christmas Day plane bomb attempt.

National intelligence director Dennis Blair raised new questions yesterday about the ability of the US government to respond at short notice to domestic acts of terror.

But he was later corrected by the head of the FBI over his comments to a Senate panel about the failure to use a special interrogation team - which is not yet operational.

Mr Blair suggested the government's High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group, also known as HIG, should have questioned the Nigerian bomb suspect before any decisions were made whether to place him in the civilian court system.

"That unit was created exactly for this purpose," Mr Blair told the Senate Homeland Security Committee.

"We did not invoke the HIG in this case. We should have."

However, the elite interrogation unit mentioned by Mr Blair was designed by the Obama administration last year to deal with suspects captured abroad and was not yet operational, FBI director Robert Mueller said last night.

The HIG unit, which brings together experienced interrogators from across the intelligence agencies, is also led by the FBI, the same agency that questioned the suspect, former London student Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in the hours after he was taken into custody aboard a plane that landed in Detroit, Michigan.

Several hours after Mr Blair spoke, his office posted a brief note on its website saying his remarks had been misconstrued.

"The FBI interrogated Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab when they took him into custody," the statement said. "They received important intelligence at that time, drawing on the FBI's expertise in interrogation that will be available in the HIG once it is fully operational."

Abdulmutallab spoke for many hours to his FBI questioners, telling them he had been trained and equipped by al-Qaida operatives in Yemen, according to law enforcement officials familiar with the case.

At a separate congressional hearing yesterday, Mr Mueller appeared to take issue with Mr Blair's initial comments, saying there was not sufficient time immediately after the Christmas Day incident to use the mobile interrogation teams.

Mr Blair's comments came as Republicans in Congress hammered the Obama administration for treating the near-disaster as a crime rather than an act of war.

In sometimes contentious Senate testimony, Mr Blair accepted blame for the failings of December 25 that led to Abdulmutallab's alleged attempt to ignite a bomb hidden in his underwear as his Northwest Airlines flight approached its Detroit landing.

"The overall counter-terrorism system did not do its job," Mr Blair said. "It's in large part my responsibility."

He told the Homeland Security Committee that he was not consulted whether Abdulmutallab should have been questioned by the HIG unit to determine whether he should be charged in civilian or military court.

Some critics say the government should have at least considered whether to delay placing the Nigerian in the civilian court system in order to press him for any useful intelligence before he gained the legal protection of a lawyer.

Many Republicans insist major terror suspects such as Abdulmutallab should be tried in military courts because civilian courts do not have the capacity to handle such high-profile cases.

"It's crystal clear to me that somebody in the Department of Justice prematurely decided that they should treat this as a normal criminal case," Republican senator Jeff Sessions said after the hearing.

"Obviously no care and time was spent on this one, it was just, 'Boom!', a decision made quickly - way too quickly in my view."

Mr Blair said the decision to file criminal charges against the suspect in federal court was made by the FBI agent in charge on the scene, "consulting with his headquarters and Department of Justice."

"Seemed logical to the people there, but it should have been taken using this HIG format at a higher level," Mr Blair said.

Questioned by Republican senator Susan Collins, homeland security secretary Janet Napolitano and Michael Leiter, chief of the National Counterterrorism Centre, said they were also not consulted before the decision was made to place Abdulmutallab in the civilian judicial system.

However, the chief US immigration investigator in Detroit said yesterday he had no regrets about how Abdulmutallab was handled at the airport by his agency and the FBI.

Brian Moskowitz, special agent in charge with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said it was critical that agents spoke immediately to Abdulmutallab to determine whether "there were other people on other planes planning to do the same".

"It was the right thing to do given our training and the events on the ground. ...Given the facts, I would do it again," Mr Moskowitz said.

He would not disclose details about what Abdulmutallab said.

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