WASHINGTON – Attorney General Eric Holder on Thursday rejected the notion that reading Times Square bomb suspect Faisal Shahzad his Miranda rights hindered investigators, telling Congress that Shahzad's cooperation is ongoing and that he has provided useful information.
Holder's testimony before a Senate appropriations subcommittee marked a sharp change in tone from the attorney general's recent appearances on Capitol Hill, where he has faced tough questions about his performance.
With what appears to be a success in the Shahzad case, Holder said that "we will continue to pursue a number of leads as we gather intelligence relating to this attempted attack."
"Mr. Shahzad is in fact continuing to cooperate with us," has provided useful information and if convicted, faces a potential life sentence in prison, Holder said.
"There is simply no higher priority than disrupting potential attacks and bringing those who plot them to justice," the attorney general said.
After the arrest of a man suspected of attempting to bomb an airplane on Christmas Day, Republicans attacked the administration for jumping too quickly to inform the suspect of his right to remain silent, saying that had shut off potential valuable intelligence. Holder's robust defense on Thursday — and a relative absence of second-guessing from his congressional inquisitors — demonstrated how the atmosphere has changed in light of this week's law-enforcement coup.
Holder told Congress that investigators got "a very substantial about of information" from Shahzad before the decision was made to give him his Miranda warnings.
Separately, a senior U.S. intelligence official said that before investigators read Shahzad his rights, "they got what they needed."
Chief among their check list of questions: finding out whether other imminent attacks were planned, or other operatives assisted Shahzad. After nearly eight hours of questioning, investigators read Shahzad his Miranda rights, so whatever resulted from the subsequent questioning could be used in a future court case.
Speaking on condition of anonymity because the investigation is continuing, the intelligence official said lessons were learned from the handling of Christmas Day bombing suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, with a team being brought in immediately to handle the questioning of Shahzad and decide whether and when to read him his rights.
At the Senate hearing, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., raised an issue that has come up in the Shahzad case — the fact that the suspect was able to get aboard an airliner before being arrested, even though investigators had already placed him on a no-fly list.
The issue "to me is like chalk on a blackboard," said Mikulski.
Emirates airline apparently didn't notice the notification from the Transportation Security Administration that Shahzad's name had been added to the list, and Shahzad boarded the Mideast-bound jetliner before federal authorities pulled him off and arrested him.
On Wednesday, the government issued a new requirement for airlines to check the no-fly list more often, a move aimed at closing that security gap in future cases of terror suspects.
"I suspect we would have detected him earlier" had the change already been in effect, Holder said, marking the one aspect of the Shahzad case on which the attorney general conceded a shortcoming.
Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska focused on the no-fly list problem in the apprehension of Shahzad, prompting Holder to declare that "I am never satisfied, even in an operation like this one" that was successful.
The arrest of Shahzad has provided an opportunity for the attorney general and the Obama administration to display a success in the fight against terrorism following Holder's ill-fated decision last year to put reputed Sept. 11 attack mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (HAH'-leed shayk moh-HAH'-med) and four accused co-conspirators on trial in New York. The White House stopped that effort.
Democrats at the hearing praised Holder for law enforcement's performance on the Shahzad case.
"It was pretty remarkable to see all the pieces come together," said Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
Mikulski called it "amazing" that Shahzad had been taken into custody Monday night in such a short time after the Saturday evening bombing attempt.
Holder cited an earlier thwarted plot to bomb New York City's subway system, in which a key participant, Najibullah Zazi (nah-jee-BOO'-lah ZAH'-zee), pleaded guilty to terrorism violations.
The Shahzad and Zazi cases reflect "exemplary investigative efforts" by federal agents, law enforcement officers and Justice Department prosecutors, the attorney general said in his prepared remarks.