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Plot Uncovered to Explode Dirty Bomb

Aired June 10, 2002 - 11:37   ET


DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: We are finally getting close to this news conference that we expected to start about 20 minutes ago, we understand will be starting within the next minute or so. The live picture on the other side of your screen is the U.S. Justice Department. That is where we expect to get more information about Abdullah Al Mujahir. This is a man who's a U.S. citizen, used to go by the original name of Jose Padilla, and we expect the Justice Department to refer to him as Jose Padilla. He has been taken into custody -- actually, this happened last month -- at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, as this man made his way back from Pakistan.

He is accused of trying to build and deploy a dirty bomb in the Washington D.C. area. We did mention he is a U.S. citizen, and he has been transferred from custody of the Justice Department to the U.S. military, and he is deemed an enemy combatant, very significant given that he is a U.S. citizen. We also heard Attorney General John Ashcroft say that they believe that this man is an operative of Al Qaeda. They say they have been tracking his movements for a long time, and they believe this man is an enemy of the United States.

We will be hearing from Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy defense secretary, also from Robert Mueller, head of the FBI, and we also expect to hear from Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson. The Attorney General John Ashcroft is in Moscow today, and we saw him make the announcement live, if you are with us last hour on CNN. You heard from the attorney general. Of course not surprising that we are hearing from Robert Mueller with the FBI and Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy defense secretary, given that Mr. Rumsfeld is overseas trying to deal with the tensions between India and Pakistan.

A lot of news coming out of the Justice Department. We wanted to rouse up our Justice Department correspondent Kelli Arena, and she joins us.

Actually, Kelly, why don't you stand by, because we have some movement from the Justice Department. Let's listen in and get the latest on Abdullah Al Mujahir.

LARRY THOMPSON, U.S. DEP. ATTORNEY GENERAL: Good morning. I'm pleased to be here with Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and FBI Director Bob Mueller.

By now, all of you have heard the attorney general's statement regarding the arrest of Abdullah Al Mujahir and his transfer to military control. Secretary Wolfowitz has a few brief remarks, and then all three of us will be available for a few questions regarding the attorney general's announcement.

I'll turn it over to Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz.


Yesterday, at the direction of the president, the Department of Justice transferred control of Jose Padilla, who is a U.S. citizen, to the Department of Defense. As of today, he will be held at the naval consolidated brig in Charleston, South Carolina.

Based on information available to our government, Padilla met with senior Al Qaeda members to discuss plans for exploding a radioactive dispersal device, or what is commonly called a "dirty bomb," in the United States.

He researched nuclear weapons and received training in wiring explosives while in Pakistan, and he was instructed to return to the United States to conduct reconnaissance operations for Al Qaeda.

Under the laws of war, Padilla's activities and his association with Al Qaeda make him an enemy combatant. For this reason, Jose Padilla has been turned over to the Department of Defense.

Our number one priority is to defend the American people from future attacks. To do that, we must root out those who are planning such attacks. We must find them and we must stop them, and when we have them in our control, we must be able to question them about plans for future attacks.

The FBI's initial detention of Padilla is one important step in this process. It demonstrates the successful sharing of information and close cooperation among U.S. government agencies that will be key to winning the war against terrorism.

I would like to commend all of those who have worked to bring about this result that makes the American people safer.

QUESTION: Mr. Thompson or Secretary Wolfowitz, what is his status then? I thought the administration's rules on military tribunals said they would be only for non-American citizens.

Is the whole point of holding him as a military combatant to be able to question him without using conventional criminal process?

THOMPSON: His status, as the attorney general said in his statement, is as an enemy combatant. He is being detained under the laws of war as an enemy combatant. There's clear Supreme Court and Circuit Court authority for such a detention.

QUESTION: What is the Supreme Court precedent?

THOMPSON: It's a 1942 case, Ex Parte Quirin, and there's a Ninth Circuit Case, and I forgot the name of it. It's an in re torito (ph). It's a 1946 case.

QUESTION: Does he have legal representation at the moment?

THOMPSON: He was being held under the authority of a federal judge, and he had legal representation in connection with that.

QUESTION: Does he now...


QUESTION: How far did they get? Have they assembled any parts of the weapon in the United States or try to acquire any parts of the weapon?

THOMPSON: I'll refer to the director on that question.

ROBERT MUELLER, FBI DIRECTOR: Let me just start off by saying that we have worked closely with the CIA for many months now, and the detention of this individual was a result of the close cooperative work of FBI agents and CIA agents, not only overseas, but also here in the United States.

And I would like to thank our counterparts at the CIA for their work on this particular case.

As we've emphasized, and by we, I mean, I think the intelligence agencies as well as Department of Defense, our principal priority is preventing future terrorist attacks. And this instance is an example of prevention.

Now, with regard to the specific question, as to the extent of the planning, as it states, I think, in the attorney general's statement, there were discussions about this possible plan, and it was in the discussion stage.

And it had not gone, as far as we know, much past the discussion stage, but there were substantial discussions undertaken.

QUESTION: How long has the government been tracking this guy, and can you tell us what the origin of that was? Was it based on information from Zubaydah or prior to that?

MUELLER: Well, let me just say, I cannot get into much of the background of the case because there are sources and methods that would be disclosed if we got into much detail at this particular point in time.


QUESTION: ... the attack was planned against the Washington, D.C. area? And also, what's happened to him if he's been arrested? He was detained March 8. What happened to him around that time?

MUELLER: I'll defer to where he might be by Secretary Wolfowitz.

WOLFOWITZ: We don't know. As Director Mueller said, this was still in the initial planning stages. It certainly wasn't at the point of having a specific target. He had indicated some knowledge of the Washington, D.C., area.

But I want to emphasize again, there was not an actual plan. We stopped this man in the initial planning stages, but it does underscore, I think, the continuing importance of focusing particularly on those people who may be pursuing chemical or biological or radiological or nuclear weapons. This is one such individual.

QUESTION: Over several years, there's been a number of interrupted attempts on the black market by Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups to buy uranium and other materials to be used for a dirty bomb, and the government's said repeatedly that there is clear evidence that they're trying to buy it. Do we now say that because they were here for a reconnaissance mission, it is our assumption that they have it?

WOLFOWITZ: I would not want to get into the specific details of that question. It may involve sources and methods. It's obviously -- and that's very important from a prevention standpoint, to protect our sources and methods. And beyond that, unless Director Mueller has anything to add...


QUESTION: Mr. Thompson or Mr. Mueller, you can't talk about this case's details. Can you tell us about the individual? In prior cases, apparently, he was well known to at least local if not federal law enforcement authorities in the Chicago area and had served time. What can you tell us, as much as you can, about his background and other trouble that he's been in or anything else you can tell us about the individual?

THOMPSON: I don't think we can tell you any more than what was in the confines of the attorney general's statement. He had some previous experience with law enforcement. But I think beyond that, it would be...


QUESTION: ... get the co-conspirators in the United States or outside of the United States? And have you identified them? I assume if you have, you were looking for...

THOMPSON: We're not going to comment on that.

Thank you.

KAGAN: Well, as expected, we did not get a ton of new information about this breaking story that we've been following throughout much of the morning, as we expected. Our John King saying that the Defense Department and the Justice Department considering this classified information, and not wanting to give out too much, but we did learn some key nuggets about this man, Abdullah Al Mujahir, his original name, Jose Padilla. First name was Jose Padilla, and then he changed it, and that would explain why you heard some officials refer to him with him one name, and then with the other.

As you heard there, he has now been transferred to the Department of Defense. He is being held in Charleston, South Carolina for the time being at a Naval facility.

They believe that he has been meeting with senior Al Qaeda members, making plans to deploy a dirty bomb, but we also heard in that news conference that this plan was actually in its initial stages, trying to alleviate maybe some fears there, but also to explain why he has been deemed an enemy combatant, citing the rules of war, and a 1942 case that the Justice Department believes allows them to transfer this man, a U.S. citizen, into the hands of the U.S. military for questioning.

For more on this, let's bring in our Justice correspondent Kelli Arena, who has been following the story throughout the morning.

Kelli, hello.


Well, a few things in that press conference that struck me are the -- first, you heard one of the questions addressed, this man is a U.S. citizen, and we had been guided earlier that U.S. citizens would not be subject to military tribunal, and in fact, that is exactly what's happening here.

And I thought it was interesting that we heard that this was a plot in the planning stages. Nothing more than discussion. The FBI director was asked specifically whether this man was found trying to locate any materials or buy anything that would help him to make a dirty bomb, and the answer was no, this was discussion only. And I do believe that some legal experts might say, well, gee, is that enough to hold up in civil court? That is a question I think we should probably pursue today.

Also, you did hear director Mueller talk about cooperation between the FBI and the CIA in preventing an act of terrorism. And as you know, Daryn, there has been heavy criticism over the lack of information sharing between those two enemies, and some questions about whether or not, they would be successful moving forward in their new mission, and you heard an endorsement there by the FBI director.

We also -- I will tell you that I did have an opportunity to speak with some prison officials right before I came onset here, Daryn. And this whole idea of somebody being, you know, becoming a Muslim in prison was quite intriguing, and the fact that we know that Mujahir had spent some time in a Chicago prison, and it is there that he converted.

And I asked if this was an increasing trend, if this was something that prison officials had seen a lot of, and the answer was yes, that they had seen this phenomenon take place quite a bit in prison, and so, it's just another dimension to this story about Americans sort of joining in the effort. We have heard about the American Taliban, before this. So there is this other dimension to this story about U.S. citizens joining the cause that is very, very much anti-American -- Daryn.

KAGAN: Yes, Kelli, thank you very much, we want it put up a map we put together help us track the story in the different U.S. cities that it affects. We first started tracking the story last hour with Attorney General John Ashcroft, who announced that the original arrest was made last month, early last month, at Chicago's International Airport, and that is where Al Mujahir was taken into custody. Allegedly the plot he was looking at, the reconnaissance he was supposed to do for this dirty bomb, was to take place in Washington D.C.

And now you see on the lower right part of the screen Charleston, South Carolina, that is what we just learned, that is where Al Mujahir is being held right now. There is a naval facility there that he is being held in.

Let's bring back in Joseph Cirincione, our dirty bomb expert who has been with us through much of the morning. He is with the Carnegie Endowment. As we had expected, we didn't have a lot of details from that news conference, including how far along exactly this plot was. One reporter asking the question, well, if this man was sent to do reconnaissance to look at a site, does that mean that they have a bomb ready to go? We really did not get a clear answer on that question.

JOSEPH CIRINCIONE, WEAPONS EXPERT: Actually the details are quite sketchy. When I walked into the studio this morning as this was unfolding, it did appear that the authorities were saying they intercepted this individual at the airport. It seemed he was on his way to do something, but now from the conference we just heard it was just a discussion stage. It was much earlier in the process. And apparently they know of these discussions from the result of multiple, independent sources, but we don't know if there was anything actually tangible here. Did he have a place that he was going to, to get the material.

And he is held in Charleston, that's actually one of the places one might go. There is quite a large nuclear weapons complex at the Savannah River complex down in Charleston, where one might obtain some of these materials.

But at this point, I think we might be able to breath a sigh of relief, one that they disrupted this plan, and two, that the plan was at a very early stage, and there was much less danger of an imminent attack than there might have appeared just a few hours ago.

KAGAN: On that note, I would like to bring David Ensor back in.

David -- we don't have David.

OK, Joseph, I will stick with you.

CIRINCIONE: I can play David.

KAGAN: OK, playing the role of David Ensor is Joseph Cirincione.

There does seem to be a two-pronged approach to this, when they were talking about it in a news conference, and one of course the protection of the U.S. people, which is key. But it also sounds by making this man an enemy combatant, they're just as interested in talking to him and getting information out of him, which might be as valuable as actually prosecuting him.

CIRINCIONE: Yes, that's exactly right. And I understand why you wanting to go to David, because he was reporting earlier on as to how some of the Taliban officials that have been captured are actually providing the sources of this information that is now enabling us to intercept this man. The other point that you might want it bring out is that they fear there may be many other individuals like this in the United States, and that the FBI and the Justice Department are engaged in a ferocious effort to round them up. And this of course providing them with a little bit of good news after a week of increasing concern about sharing of intelligence, about missed opportunities. Could the CIA, the FBI have prevented September 11th?

So here they are demonstrating that very early on in a suspected terrorist plot they are able to locate individuals, arrest them, and disrupt the plot before it gets very far at all.

KAGAN: Yes, there has been no shortage of congratulations between the different agencies, saying, see, look, how well we can get along, and we can work well together, and we can thwart a plot. It looks like this one has been foiled, but it is going to bring up fears and questions that people have about dirty bombs and what happens.

And earlier, our medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta put together a piece about what happen if a person comes in contact with a dirty bomb. We pulled up that piece and want it take another look.

Here is Dr. Gupta.


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT (on camera): This is what it might look like, a radiation bomb, or a dirty bomb, a simple container filled with explosives and radioactive material.

(voice-over): You may have heard of such materials, plutonium or uranium, but experts say terrorists may be more like lick to use suzium 137 or even cobalt 60. It is these materials that emit gamma rays, high-energy radiation that can pass right through your skin. If a dirty bomb explodes, the blast would send a cloud of radioactive dust high into the air.

(on camera): Which may fall to the ground in an oval-shaped pattern. We know it's bad. But just bad is it? ? if you are standing here, in the first zone, the most deadly zone close to the bomb, gamma rays will penetrate your entire body.

(voice-over): And go straight to the cells, where the energy disrupts their electrochemical balance, causing massive cellular shutdown and probably death. There are currently no treatments to halt this process. Experts believe only handful of people will suffer that fate. (on camera): So if you are here, in the second zone, the range of which is dependent on the bombs explosive power, as well as the amount of radioactive material, you will likely survive, but you may get radiation sickness. That's because in this region, the energy's only strong enough to kill cells sensitive to radiation.

(voice-over): This includes cells lining your intestines, causing nausea and vomiting. It also destroys immune system cells found in the blood and bone marrow, leaving victims prone to potentially fatal infections. Doctors can protect these patients with antibiotics, and sometimes even bone marrow transplants, to restore their immune system.

(on camera): If you are part of a vast majority of people in the third zone, even further away, you may still be effected, but not know it for decades.

(voice-over): In this case, radiation does not immediately kill cells. Instead the damage is done inside the nucleus of some cells, where these X-shaped chromosomes contain long strands of DNA. The radioactive energy can destroy certain genes, which in time may cause a cell to divide and grow into cancer, most commonly, thyroid cancer. This particular cancer is easy to treat, and may be prevented with potassium iodine pills, if taken immediately after exposure or even before.

Radiation can also damage future generations, by affecting the DNA in sperm cells, and egg cells. As each cell divides, the damaged nucleus of the cell, shown in red, passes on the damaged genes as the embryo grows. The child will be more likely to have birth defects, and more prone to cancer. And those who are farthest away would be safe.

(on camera): Experts agree, a radiation bomb would probably not kill a large number of people. They say if an explosion is too small, the radio active dust would be spread only over a small area. And if it's a large explosion, that same radio active dust would be spread too thin to hurt many people.

In other wards, a dirty bomb is not an effective weapon of mass destruction.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN reporting.


KAGAN: One other slightly scare note about that, as we understand, there is only one emergency room in the entire United States that is dedicated to treating patients exposed to such hazards, and that one is in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

But once again, the more encouraging news, it appears that this plot has been foiled in the reconnaissance stage, the arrest today of a U.S. citizen, Abdullah Al Mujahir, a man formerly known as Jose Padilla. He is now being held by the U.S. military. Much more on that ahead. TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT



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