World and Nation

Hearing on terror suspect explores Miranda warning

Almost two years ago, a Federal Bureau of Investigation agent was in Nigeria to question an Eritrean man who was in custody on suspicion of supporting terrorism. The suspect, Mohamed Ibrahim Ahmed, had already been interrogated by other U.S. officials for intelligence-gathering purposes, without having been read his rights.

The FBI agent was there for a different purpose: a “clean” interrogation. He would apprise Ahmed of his Miranda rights — including the right to remain silent and to have counsel — and then interview him, in hopes of winning a confession that could be used in a prosecution in civilian court.

But suppose the suspect, who was also known as Talha, refused to waive his rights and answer questions? The agent proposed an idea in an email to his colleagues and to prosecutors.

“We’ve planned that in the event that T does not waive his rights, we could continue as another ‘dirty’ interview,” the agent wrote in an email at 11:54 a.m. on Jan. 3, 2010.

In the debate over using civilian trials for terrorists, one of the key issues — the ability to first question a suspect to gain critical intelligence on terrorist cells or plots and still pursue a criminal prosecution — is getting an early test in Ahmed’s case in U.S. District Court in Manhattan.

Lawyers for Ahmed have asked a judge to suppress statements that the U.S. government has said he made after waiving his Miranda rights and being interrogated by the FBI in Nigeria. They claim that any such waiver was not voluntary and thus any statements he made are inadmissible.

The hearing on the defense motion, which began on Thursday, has provided an unusually revealing look at how U.S. officials are carefully navigating through a kind of hybrid version of Miranda, first trying to get intelligence through “dirty,” or un-Mirandized, interviews and then having different “clean team” interrogators read the same suspects their rights in the hopes that they will waive them and continue to talk.

One issue is how much distance U.S. officials kept between the “dirty” and “clean” interviews, and whether the line between the two was blurred, possibly tainting any waiver of his rights.

Ahmed, 37, who has been living in Sweden, has since been indicted in New York on charges that include providing material support to al-Shabab, a terrorist group based in Somalia. The indictment says that Ahmed received jihad training and bomb-making instruction in al-Shabab military camps in Somalia in 2009, and that when he was taken into custody in Nigeria in November 2009 on an immigration violation, he was found with bomb-making documents.