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White House reveals secret cooperation with AbdulMutallab family

By Ed Henry, CNN
Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab allegedly hid an explosive chemical in his underwear aboard an airliner.
Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab allegedly hid an explosive chemical in his underwear aboard an airliner.
  • Effort has led to intelligence that could help prevent terror attempts, officials say
  • White House attempting to push back on Republican criticism
  • Officials; Two FBI agents secretly flew to Lagos, Nigeria, to make contact with family
  • They say Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab has been talking on daily basis since last week

Washington (CNN) -- Senior Obama administration officials revealed late Tuesday they've secretly gained the cooperation of family members of Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab to help get the Christmas Day airline bomb suspect talking.

The cooperation effort has led to actionable intelligence that could help prevent terror attempts on U.S. soil, the senior officials said.

The revelation is part of an aggressive attempt by the White House to push back on Republican claims the Obama administration mishandled the terror investigation, with AbdulMutallab being read his Miranda rights shortly after he began cooperating with investigators.

After giving the U.S. some information in the early stages of the probe, AbdulMutallab stopped talking about his attempt to blow up an airliner with a bomb hidden in his underwear.

The senior administration officials disclosed that on January 1, just days after the attempted terror attack, two FBI agents secretly flew to Lagos, Nigeria, to meet with officials of the CIA and the State Department. They began an extensive investigation and tried to work with AbdulMutallab's family in hopes of gaining his cooperation.

The U.S. officials later traveled to Nigeria's capital city, Abuja, and eventually gained the trust of two unidentified relatives of the suspect.

On January 17, the FBI agents secretly flew back to the U.S. with the two relatives in order to work with the suspect.

One senior Obama administration official said the family members privately conveyed to the suspect they "had complete trust in the U.S. system" and they believed he "would be treated fairly" by the Obama administration.

The senior administration officials said that since AbdulMutallab began talking to investigation again last week, he has been cooperating on a daily basis. The officials added the information gained from the interrogations has been disseminated throughout the intelligence community.

One of the senior Obama officials, who bluntly said the Republican attacks have "frustrated the hell out of me," asserted that gaining the trust of the family was the best way to handle the case and helped the administration gain valuable intelligence from the suspect, who is believed to have ties to an al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen.

"It could be used to disrupt other attacks," one of the senior Obama officials said of the intelligence gleaned from AbdulMutallab in the interrogations, who added the president has been getting regular updates on what the suspect has been revealing.

Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the top Republican on the Homeland Security Committee, charged Saturday in the GOP weekly radio and Internet address that the White House botched the handling of AbdulMutallab.

"The Obama administration appears to have a blind spot when it comes to the war on terrorism," she said.

Video: FBI talking to accused bomber

In releasing the new information, senior administration officials were direct about saying they're trying to show the case has been handled properly and the Obama administration is doing all it can to keep the country safe from future attacks.

One of the senior administration officials said, "We are in a very active war against al Qaeda" and "very experienced individuals who know what they're doing" are handling the interrogations well, despite the charges by Republicans.

"We'll leave it to them, not politicians in Washington," said this senior administration official.

A second senior administration official suggested that the U.S. did not lose any valuable intelligence by taking extra time to get the suspect's cooperation through his family.

Pressed on reports suggesting the intelligence being gained in the new interrogations is not stale, this second official said: "I would not disagree with that at all."