Speaking of Attorney General Eric Holder’s reminder to Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) that the criminal justice system “is an extremely effective tool for gathering information,” I just got off the phone with Jack Cloonan, a 27-year veteran of FBI counterterrorism who retired in 2002. Cloonan has interrogated several members of al-Qaeda, including Jamal Ahmed al-Fadl, a onetime bin Laden associate-turned-state witness, and if the FBI had been allowed to proceed with Jose Padilla’s interrogation, Cloonan would have been assigned to interrogate him as well. While Cloonan considers himself “apolitical,” he’s more than a little dissatisfied that conservative politicians who lack any experience in interrogations are inveighing against the FBI’s handling of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. “What would you expect from Mitch McConnell?” Cloonan said. “They just don’t know what they’re talking about. They really don’t.”
For one thing, despite endless repetition on the right, reading a suspect his Miranda rights does not compel him to cease cooperation with interrogators. “People keep talking about Mirandizing as if it’s a preventive measure, getting someone to shut up, but most critics have never been in position have to Mirandize one,” Cloonan said. “It’s to keep pristine information you’ve already gotten and to have a prosecutable case. It’s not the end of an interview.” Nor does the presence of a lawyer mean a suspect has to be quiet. “The attorney’s gonna say the case against you is significant” and press Abdulmutallab to cooperate — as, he said, has doubtlessly happened by the fact that the would-be Christmas bomber’s family has been brought into his continued discussions with the FBI.
“A lot of people make big a deal out of Mirandizing Abdulmutallab, thinking he’ll clam up and will never talk,” Cloonan said. “What’s gonna work, over the next several weeks, is a bit of gamesmanship. Here’s what we’re looking for — from both the FBI and the attorney — and the U.S. Attorney in Detroit will say this is what he’s got to do. They’ll put together a proffer agreement outlining what his obligations are.” If it comes out that Abdulmutallab “exaggerated or lied about any of it, then it’s void.”
Cloonan ultimately thinks that’s the way the Abdulmutallab case will end: with some form of proffer deal, even one that ends with the 23-year old pleading guilty and serving life in prison. While U.S. intelligence officials are unlikely to get a wide array of information about active plots from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula from Abdulmutallab — “the notion that Abdulmutallab might be an infinite fount of knowledge presupposes they brought him into inner workings [and] they wouldn’t do it,” he said — the most likely outcome will be to get a better sense of how the terrorist group recruits and trains its operatives. Cloonan even noted that in the days after Abdulmutallab’s initial FBI interview, the Yemeni security forces and CIA drones struck at AQAP. “They’re gonna get all kinds of information from this guy.”