WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's counter-terrorism adviser hit back at lawmakers Tuesday over the handling of the Christmas bomb plot suspect, accusing critics of "fear-mongering."
John Brennan, deputy national security advisor for homeland security and counter-terrorism, rejected Republican charges that the administration had lost valuable intelligence by prosecuting the accused bomber in a civilian court and informing him of his right to remain silent.
In a commentary in USA Today, he said the threat posed by extremists was serious but should not cause panic and that US government agencies were well able to deal with it.
"Terrorists are not 100-feet tall. Nor do they deserve the abject fear they seek to instill," Brennan wrote.
"They will, however, be dismantled and destroyed, by our military, our intelligence services and our law enforcement community."
The idea that the country's counter-terrorism officials and justice system "are unable to handle these murderous miscreants is absurd," he said.
After the attempted Christmas Day attack, the administration "thoroughly interrogated" the Nigerian charged with trying to blow up a US airliner bound for Detroit, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, Brennan said.
The questioning produced "important information" and "the most important breakthrough occurred after Abdulmutallab was read his rights," he wrote.
Experience in recent years had shown that suspects tended to be more forthcoming in civilian custody as they "did not cooperate when transferred to military custody, which can harden one's determination to resist cooperation," he said.
"It's naive to think that transferring Abdulmutallab to military custody would have caused an outpouring of information."
He also said "shoe-bomber" Richard Reid, who tried to set off explosives in his shoe on a flight in December 2001, was read his rights five minutes after he was detained.
"The same people who criticize the president today were silent back then," he wrote.
Brennan, who usually does not take part in partisan clashes, blasted Republican lawmakers over allegations the White House had botched the handling of the suspect.
"Politically motivated criticism and unfounded fear-mongering only serve the goals of al-Qaeda," he wrote.
On Sunday, Brennan told NBC's "Meet the Press" that he informed Republican lawmakers soon after the attack that the suspect was in FBI custody and they did not raise concerns about military courts or legal rights.
Under US law, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has to inform a suspect in its custody that he has the right to remain silent.
Republican leaders did not dispute Brennan had phoned them about the accused bomber's detention, but called his commentary a "political smear."
"This administration has no clear plan to identify, confront and defeat avowed terrorists as terrorists instead of treating them as common criminals," the Republican leader in the House, John Boehner, and the top-ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, Pete Hoekstra, said in a statement.
"The administration needs to demonstrate that it is willing to take responsibility for leading a nation at war against a violent, radicalized and extremely capable and adaptive threat," said the statement.
But Brennan dismissed demands that terror suspects should only be tried in military courts, saying the military tribunal system set up after the September 11 attacks of 2001 had only secured three convictions.
Civilian criminal courts, however, had convicted "hundreds" of terror suspects, including major cases such as Reid and 9/11 plotter Zacarias Moussaoui, he said.
Citing successful efforts by the Obama administration to disrupt "dozens of terrorist plots against the homeland" and target senior figures in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere, Brennan said: "We need no lectures about the fact that this nation is at war."
US officials accuse Abdulmutallab, allegedly trained in Yemen by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, of trying to detonate explosives hidden in his underwear on a Northwest Airlines plane approaching Detroit on December 25.