The issue is enormously important because Abdulmutallab, newly trained by al-Qaida in the terrorist group's latest hot spot, Yemen, likely knows things that would be useful to American anti-terrorism investigators. He's not some grizzled old terrorist who has been sitting in Guantanamo Bay since 2003 and doesn't have any new intelligence. He's fresh material. Yet he is protected by U.S. criminal law from having to answer questions.
Why? Republicans on the Judiciary Committee increasingly believe there is only one person who can answer: Attorney General Eric Holder.
It was Holder who made the decision to try 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in a criminal trial in New York. It is Holder who has expressed his desire to grant full American constitutional rights to foreign terrorists. It is Holder who is leading the administration's sputtering effort to move some Guantanamo inmates to the United States. And it is Holder who is apparently cutting other parts of the government out of crucial terrorism decisions such as the treatment of Abdulmutallab.
"These days, all roads lead to the attorney general," says one well-placed Republican source in the Senate. "They seem to have aggregated quite a bit of power inside Main Justice." The problem is, the Holder Justice Department appears to be handling terrorism issues from a defense-attorney perspective, and doing so without the input of the government's other terrorism-fighting agencies.
That was the message of that rather stunning testimony from Blair, Leiter, Napolitano and Mueller, all of whom were out of the loop on the Adbulmutallab decision. Their accounts left a number of Republican senators shaken; as the GOP lawmakers see it, the decision to read Abdulmutallab Miranda rights -- after just 50 minutes of questioning -- was a dreadful mistake, one that could have serious consequences down the line. There should be some accountability.
So on Jan. 21, all seven Republicans on the Judiciary Committee sent a letter to Holder asking for a full explanation: Who made the decision and why, and whether the administration now has "a protocol or policy in place for handling al-Qaida terrorists captured in the United States."
Republicans were troubled by the decision even before Senate testimony showed that major administration figures knew nothing about it. Now the lawmakers want to know what happened, and they believe the only person who can tell them is Holder.