On Capitol Hill, there's a war being fought over the War on Terror, and so far, Republicans are winning. Or at least they're winning the Battle of Miranda.
GOP lawmakers believe they are having some success in the effort to stiffen the spine of the Obama administration as it makes policy for dealing with captured terrorist suspects in the future. Even as the administration defends its decision to grant accused Detroit bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab the right to remain silent, the president himself is hinting that things might be done differently in the future.
"Should the practice of reading suspected terrorist their Miranda rights be reviewed?" CBS's Katie Couric asked President Obama during a Super Bowl interview.
"Absolutely," Obama answered. "Everything should be reviewed."
"It's important for us to recognize," Obama explained, "that when we're dealing with al-Qaida operatives, that they may have national-security intelligence that we need, and it's important to make sure that the processes and procedures we approach with respect to these folks are not identical to the ones we would use if we were apprehending the local drug dealer."
Translation: Maybe we'll do it differently next time.
While Obama hints at changes, he and his administration are still trying to justify their actions in the Detroit case. "They're changing their story constantly to try to defend their tactics," says a knowledgeable source on Capitol Hill.
For example, we know that the FBI interrogated Abdulmutallab for just 50 minutes before Attorney General Eric Holder decided to advise the suspect of his Miranda rights to remain silent and to have a court-appointed attorney. After that, Abdulmutallab shut up.
Republicans hit the administration hard on that point, especially when the White House made the unbelievable claim that agents had gotten every last bit of valuable information from Abdulmutallab in that brief talk. In response to GOP criticism, administration officials leaked the story that Abdulmutallab actually stopped talking before being read his Miranda rights, meaning Holder's decision was not to blame for cutting off the brief flow of intelligence.
Wrong, wrong, wrong, say knowledgeable sources on Capitol Hill. "It is totally false that he had stopped cooperating and then they made the decision to Mirandize him," says one GOP source. "They made the decision, and then they weren't trying to question him anymore."
After a few days of rebuttal, Republicans thought they had knocked the story down. But then came Obama, in the Super Bowl interview, when Couric said Abdulmutallab "was giving information to the FBI, then his rights were read to him and he clammed up."
"Well, that's actually not what happened," Obama said. "What happened was, he clammed up, and after we had obtained actionable intelligence from him, that's when the FBI folks on the ground then read him his Miranda rights."
No matter what the president says, Republicans are firm in their insistence that that's not the way it happened.
Just a few hours before Obama's Super Bowl interview, some top GOP lawmakers were astonished to hear White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan, appearing on "Meet the Press," claim that they had known about and had not objected to the administration's decision to read Abdulmutallab his rights.
Brennan said he called four top GOP lawmakers Sens. Mitch McConnell and Kit Bond and Reps. John Boehner and Peter Hoekstra on Christmas night, just hours after Abdulmutallab tried to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253. Brennan said he told the Republicans that the FBI had a suspect in custody; from that, Brennan claimed, the lawmakers should have inferred that Abdulmutallab would be read his Miranda rights.
"None of those individuals raised any concerns with me at that point," Brennan said. "They didn't say, 'Is he going into military custody? Is he going to be Mirandized?'"
Within hours of Brennan's TV appearance, all four GOP lawmakers took issue with Brennan's story. "Brennan never told me of any plans to Mirandize the Christmas Day bomber," said Bond. "It never came up," said Hoekstra. Spokesman for McConnell and Boehner denied it, too.
GOP lawmakers don't expect to hear that charge again. And they believe that, in the big picture, while administration officials continue to push back, Obama himself appears to be giving ground. To Republicans, that's progress.
"They're going to review this policy, whether they acknowledge it or not," says another well-placed GOP source. "And it only happened because of the concerns that we raised."