Reid and Abdulmutallab: Back To The Future (updated)

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On December 22, 2001, a British national named Richard Reid tried to blow up American Airlines Flight 63 from Paris to Miami. He had some explosive devices in his shoe but failed to adequately light them. Reid was subsequently indicted and tried on a hodgepodge of terror charges. He pleaded guilty and memorably received a life sentence from Chief U.S. Richard Young. "I am at war with your country," Reid said. Now he sits mute at the USP Florence ADMAX (Supermax to you and me) facility in Florence, Colorado.

On December 25, 2009, a little more than eight years to the day, a Nigerian national named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit. He allegedly had some explosives in his underwear but failed to adequately light them. Abdulmutallab was immediately charged in a criminal complaint and soon will be indicted on a hodgepodge of terror charges.

Political and legal windbagging aside, there is little reason in law or fact to believe that the current case will turn out any differently than the old case did. The only real question is how long it'll take to get there.

UPDATE (3:06p ET): RIght on cue, the Justice Department announced this afternoon (Wed) that a grand jury in Detroit has indicted Abdulmutallab in a six-count document that closely tracks the Reid indictment and that would bring with it a life sentence upon conviction. 

 

In early 2002, Reid was charged with:attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction, attempted homicide, placing explosive device on aircraft, attempted murder, interference with flight members and crew, attempted destruction of aircraft, using destructive device during crime, and attempted wrecking of a mass transportation vehicle. None of those charges would seem out of place in the looming federal case against Abdulmutallab. Indeed, in some instances, federal lawyers could simply cut and paste portions of Reid's indictment onto Abdulmutallab's.

Reid offered no substantive defense and quickly pleaded guilty. Abdulmutallab may select this route as well. If he doesn't, he'll almost certainly be convicted by the testimony of the eyewitnesses alone, never mind all the chatter the intelligence communities now have to offer as a way of motive or plan. And if he is convicted he almost certainly will get a life sentence and find himself Reid's neighbor at the Supermax facility in Florence, Colorado.

Is there an obvious or apparent defense? I cannot think of any. In fact, the incident reminds me of the old Steve Martin line: "I forget that murder was against the law." Abdulmutallab can't say "I forgot I couldn't put PETN in a special pouch in my underwear and try to light it on a plane," I am pretty sure there is a case out there that says a criminal defendant is deemed responsible for the contents of his or her own underwear even if he later claims he didn't know what was down there.

Aside from the location of the appendages of the would-be bombs, the only meaningful difference so far between the Reid and Abdulmutallab stories is in the reaction by the public-- and by public officials to the event. Following Abdulmutallab's alleged attempt, Official Washington-- and the White House in particular-- has been apopletic about the failure of the Transportation Security Administration's failure to coordinate with the Central Intelligence Agency and other intelligence gathering units (and vice versa). But things were a bit simpler in early 2002, when then-Attorney General John Ashcroft discussed the Reid case.  

"But for the vigilance of the flight crew and the courage of the passengers on Flight 63," Ashcroft said on live television at the time. "Richard Reid may have succeeded in what today's indictment charges was his ultimate goal: the destruction of Flight 63 and the 197 people on board. That this tragedy was averted stands as proof that terrorists -- even Al Qaeda-trained terrorists -- are no match for alert and vigilant people roused to defend themselves and to defend their freedom."

Eight years on, it turns out we the people are still relatively alert and vigilent, and that Al Qaeda still can't quite get its technology to match the zeal of its bag men, even though our government agencies still can't get themselves talking clearly enough to one another to eliminate the threat in the first place. Put me down as predicting a life sentence for the suspect and please, for the love of God, let's figure out a better nickname for him so that we don't have to call him the Underwear Bomber from now until the end of time.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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