- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 13, 2002

The White House yesterday angrily denied suggestions that the administration revealed the capture of a "dirty bomb" suspect to deflect criticism of federal law enforcement.
"These very few people who want to make such outlandish political accusations represent the most cynical among the most partisan, and they're not to be taken seriously," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.
But Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge said the announcement on Monday by Attorney General John Ashcroft was crucial in reassuring the public that the FBI and CIA are cooperating in the war against terrorism.
"It was very important for America to witness the collaboration between or among the respective agencies that ultimately resulted in the apprehension of this individual," Mr. Ridge told reporters. He added that such a "public revelation gives the country greater confidence."
His comments seemed to support accusations by some lawmakers that the announcement, made one month after the arrest of Abdullah al Muhajir, was designed to deflect criticism of federal law enforcement.
For example, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle said Tuesday that he wants to know why Mr. Ashcroft disclosed the May 8 arrest on Monday.
"The information was available earlier why was it not announced?" he asked.
"There may have been a rush to bring it before the news media" in the wake of last week's criticism of U.S. intelligence agencies, Mr. Daschle said.
Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, Connecticut Democrat, said the administration was waging so much of its war on terrorism in secret that "I'm getting concerned that this [announcement of a suspect] is a little hype here."
Some lawmakers also have raised questions about the strength of the case against al Muhajir, but intelligence sources said the evidence is strong.
A U.S. intelligence official said it would be inaccurate to say al Muhajir, also known as Jose Padilla, is not a major catch for the United States.
"He is a guy who clearly had received training in explosives and wiring and was planning to do harm," the official said.
The plot to build and detonate a radiological bomb a conventional explosive laced with radioactive material was "in the initial stages" but involved meetings with senior al Qaeda terrorists who were plotting an attack against U.S. targets, including hotels or gas stations.
"Is he an Abu Zubaydah or a Khalid Shaikh Mohammed? No," the official said. "But he was clearly part of a terrorist operation."
Zubaydah is the al Qaeda operations chief who was captured by the United States in Pakistan in March. Mohammed is a Kuwaiti national who is believed to be a key al Qaeda operative and who was involved in planning the September 11 attacks.
U.S. intelligence officials say they believe al Muhajir, who was carrying $10,000 cash when he was arrested, may have been conducting a reconnaissance mission to identify targets.
He also may have been preparing for an attack when he was arrested May 8.
The Washington Times first reported on May 13 that two al Qaeda terrorists were operating a secret cell within the United States and were planning to construct a radiological bomb.
The two men were identified by U.S. intelligence as an American national and an African national who were to obtain radioactive material for a so-called "dirty bomb" from inside the United States, either by purchasing it illegally or stealing it.
The plot was disclosed by Zubaydah.
Democrats raised more questions yesterday about the timing of the announcement on al Muhajir's arrest and of President Bush's decision last week to create a Cabinet-level post for homeland security after months of resisting the idea.
Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr., Tennessee Democrat, criticized comments by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld that al Muhajir may never be tried if he provides information to authorities.
"I would think you'd want to punish the guy if he's guilty of a fraction of what they allege," Mr. Ford said. "It would seem to me he's a candidate for punishment."
Mr. Ford said Mr. Ridge "kind of danced around" lawmakers' questions at a closed House briefing yesterday about how the new department will coordinate state offices and share information between agencies.
"I feel bad for the guy," Mr. Ford said. "It's like he didn't have enough information. He kept repeating himself using different language. Because they don't have answers to these basic questions, that's why more and more people believe this might have been politically motivated."
Mr. Ridge said the proposal is "a work in progress." And he said the administration would have been second-guessed no matter how it handled the announcement of al Muhajir's arrest.
"If you don't bring attention to it, you'll be criticized for close-hold and not telling anybody, and if you do bring attention to it, you're accused of hyperbole," Mr. Ridge said.
Mr. Fleischer said the announcement of al Muhajir's arrest was delayed because "there can be an advantage in not allowing the people who sent him here to have the information that he's been detained, to see if we can't find anything else out about whatever it is they may be planning."
He also said much of the information about al Muhajir's plan was developed in the weeks after his May 8 arrest.
After weeks of second-guessing by congressional Democrats and the media about whether the Bush administration should have released information that the president received in a CIA briefing Aug. 6 including reports that al Qaeda members planned to hijack U.S. airliners Mr. Fleischer said the government is erring on the side of caution.
"Very often in the war on terrorism we are not going to have exact down-to-the-detail, precise information," he said. "We're going to have somewhat generalized information about people who have plans, intentions to bring harm to our country. In this case, because of his training and because of the evidence we have that was brought forth by sources and methods which I'm not going to discuss, we have strong reason to fear the worst."
The spokesman said the administration does not regret how the matter has been handled.
"The fact of the matter, again, is a very dangerous man has been taken off of the streets of the United States where he will no longer be in a position to do harm to our citizenry," Mr. Fleischer said.
Joseph Curl contributed to this report.


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