Prodded by Sen. John McCain to say if he agreed with Attorney General Eric Holder's choice on prosecution strategy, Gates replied that he thought Holder was better suited than he to make that decision.
The Arizona Republican also pressed Gates at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing to say whether he agreed with the Obama administration's decision to question the suspect in an attempted U.S. airliner bombing for only 50 minutes, with civilian interrogators, before reading the man his Miranda right to remain silent.
Gates said "I think we did not have the high-level interrogators there that we now have protocols in place" to assure their presence. But he added: "I believe that a team of highly experienced FBI and other interrogators could be as effective in interrogating the prisoner as anyone operating under the (Army) field manual."
McCain asked Gates if he agreed with an assertion by Dennis Blair, director of national intelligence, that better, more complete or more useful information might have been gleaned from the suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, if he had been subjected to a more intense style of interrogation.
"I'm just not in a position to know the answer to that, senator," Gates replied. But he did reply, "Yes," when asked if he thought a special group of more qualified interrogators, members of the High Value Interrogation Group, should have been present.
McCain said that Holder "has obviously botched this thing very, very badly," and said he would continue to question how the man's interrogation was handled.
Asked by Sen. George LeMieux, R-Fla., why the United States restricted questioning of the suspect in the attempted airliner bombing of Dec. 25 when it typically places no such limit on interrogation of terrorism suspects taken off the battlefield, Gates said, "That's a question better addressed to the attorney general, sir."
"My view," he added, "is that the issue of whether someone is put into the American judicial system or into the military commissions is a judgment best made by the chief law enforcement officer of the United States."
Gates did say that authority currently exists in the law to provide "delays in Mirandizing" suspects if cases where a person "is deemed to be a threat to national security."
"I just think that we are in a good place when you have the ability to use both the civilian court system and the military commissions and to be able to make decisions about how to prosecute an individual on a case by case basis," the secretary said.
Gates also said that Holder had consulted him him on Abdulmutallab and that he had told Holder that "I would defer to him on that."