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Justice Transfers Dirty Bomb Suspect to Defense Department

Aired June 10, 2002 - 10:35   ET



JOHN ASHCROFT, ATTORNEY GENERAL: I am pleased to announce today a significant step forward in the war on terrorism. We have captured a known terrorist who was exploring a plan to build and explode a radiological dispersion device, or dirty bomb, in the United States.


DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: Attorney General John Ashcroft making that announcement live just moments ago. You saw it here on CNN. And it is not just any man, it is a man who is a U.S. citizen.

With more on this, let's go ahead and bring in our David Ensor to help us sort out just how big of a development that this is -- David, it sounds -- it sounds pretty important.

DAVID ENSOR, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, it is important, and they've taken an unusual approach, an interesting approach to this suspect, Abdullah Al Mujahir, by declaring him -- by having the president declare him an enemy combatant, and putting him in the hands of the Department of Defense instead of the Department of Justice.

Now, this is a man who -- as the attorney general just told us, is a U.S. citizen, so having been arrested at Chicago's O'Hare Airport, he would normally be afforded all the legal rights of a U.S. citizen, presumed innocent until found guilty, and so forth, with a lot of rights in terms of lawyers and what can and cannot be done to him.

He has far fewer rights as an enemy combatant, which is what the attorney general has said that the president has determined he is. He can now be interrogated by U.S. interrogators, who are going to regard him as an al Qaeda member, as an enemy. The -- he still has some right as a combatant in war, but they are far fewer than a U.S. citizen in a legal process.

KAGAN: We heard the attorney general say that this actually happened last month, this has happened some time ago. Do we have any idea where this man is being held?

ENSOR: I do not, at this time, know where he is being held. Probably we can find that out in the next hour or two. One other thing to just highlight, which is the radiological bomb side of this, while the attorney general described the weapon as a conventional explosive laced with radiological material that could cause thousands of additional casualties, most experts say that a radiological bomb would be unlikely, in fact, to cause additional deaths. What it would mostly cause is panic, people knowing that nuclear material was in their area would likely be very, very upset, and might -- might panic as a result. It might also raise cancer levels in that area, and cause a few more deaths many years hence. I would not kill more people in the first instance, Daryn.

KAGAN: Well, in any case, it would be a terrible thing to have happen, and have a plan come to fruition.

Couple of questions here for you. Going back to this idea of classifying this man as an enemy combatant, and putting him -- a U.S. citizen, in the custody of the U.S. military, when you look at how serious this alleged plan was, you might understand why they would want to do that, but I can hear the cries now from civil rights activists saying -- being very concerned that that's how a U.S. citizen would be treated.

ENSOR: Well, this is an interesting precedent. I'm not sure whether this has ever been done before. Frankly, I don't know. We will have to find that out in the next hour or two. But it is an interesting precedent. It is going to be -- interesting to see whether this is done again in the future against U.S. citizens. Are there other U.S. citizens who are plotting with al Qaeda to commit attacks in the United States? Is this a -- a growing problem? We are going to have to be asking officials that as the day continues.

KAGAN: And just one other quick point. It was also interesting how the attorney general stressed how this all came about with the cooperation of the FBI, the CIA, and the Defense Department, something that hasn't, apparently, been happening too much lately.

ENSOR: Well, in fact, if you talk to officials at both those agencies, they will tell you there's a great deal of cooperation. What we have been hearing, what's been highlighted in the last couple of weeks have been some communications problems and lack of cooperation, but overall, these officials will tell you that there are, in fact, FBI agents at the counterterrorism center at the CIA, there are CIA officers now being asked to help the FBI improve it's intelligence-gathering processes.

So, they will tell you that there is, in fact, a fair amount of cooperation. This, I guess is another example of that.

KAGAN: David Ensor, thank you so much for your insight behind the walls of the intelligence community.

Let's go to White House now and check in with our John King -- John, interesting that the attorney general is the one who made this announcement, and that he did it from Moscow.

JOHN KING, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Daryn, White House officials telling us that President Bush wanted the attorney general to make the announcement to show the Justice Department lead role in this investigation so far. But we also are told a number of things by senior administration officials.

Number one, on the point you were just discussing with David Ensor, we are told that it was last night, on the recommendation of the attorney general and the secretary of defense, that President Bush signed off on the determination that this suspect be treated as a combatant against the United States, and we are told he is being transferred today, as we speak, from Justice Department custody into the custody of the Defense Department.

I asked where that would lead this suspect, where he would be taken into custody. I was told by a senior White House official that they do not have that information at the moment, but that at this moment, the Defense Department is holding people in two places: Norfolk, Virginia and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

We also are told that according to the information that senior advisers to the president have seen, that there was significant planning, as David was just discussing, of using one of those radioactive disbursement devices, a dirty bomb. The senior officials saying they have no evidence that those radioactive materials are already in the United States and in al Qaeda's hands, but they do say they have information from a number of sources that that was one of the plans by this operation.

Officials also saying that they are announcing this now because the president has signed off on the transfer from Justice to Defense custody, but the investigation continues, and asking, as well, whether this suspect had any others, accomplices in the United States, only told by senior administration officials that they know of no additional arrests, but they do know the investigation continues, and we also are told that we will have a joint briefing at the top of the hour from Justice officials and Defense officials.

KAGAN: Also interesting, you mention Norfolk, Virginia. Up until this point, the most high-profile American who has faced charges of working against the United States would be John Walker Lindh, the Taliban American, and it looks like this man, Abdullah Al Mujahir, is being treated very differently.

KING: Well, obviously this a U.S. citizen apprehended as he tried to reenter the United States from Pakistan, and as the attorney general said, they believe he was planning an attack in this country.

Mr. Lindh taken into custody by the intelligence and military sources on the battlefield, if you will, in Afghanistan. Certainly, he was in -- the U.S. says he was in combat against U.S. forces on the ground, and certainly had been through some al Qaeda training and a sympathizer, but a battlefield combatant, if you will, versus someone who was planning terrorist attacks in this country that the United States will say, and you were discussing with David, this will be a case that gets challenged in the courts, no doubt, that they can treat him as a battlefield combatant, although he was coming into the United States, again in the view of this government, to launch terrorist strikes against this country. The United States will argue that's part of an ongoing war.

KAGAN: Absolutely. John King at the White House. Thank you so much.

And just to wrap up, if you're just joining us, once again, the breaking news announced out of Moscow by Attorney General John Ashcroft. The -- taken into custody, a man who used to be known as Jose Padilla, who now goes by the name Abdullah Al Mujahir, taken into custody as he tried to reenter the country, going from Pakistan into Chicago. Accused, now, of trying to put together a dirty atomic bomb.

He is a U.S. citizen with a U.S. passport, but he has now been deemed an enemy combatant, and transferred from the custody of the Justice Department to the U.S. military, to the Defense Department.





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