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President Bush Holds Media Availability Press Conference With Ariel Sharon

Aired June 10, 2002 - 12:00   ET


LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: Now first this hour, the arrest of a U.S. citizen accused of plotting to explode a conventional bomb designed to spread nuclear radiation. The suspect allegedly trained with al Qaeda and he is now being held as an enemy combatant.

Our David Ensor has been tracking this story this morning and he's also been digging up some details on this alleged plot. He joins us now from Washington -- David.

DAVID ENSOR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Leon, this gentleman is now being held in the Navy Brig in Charleston, South Carolina as an enemy combatant, as you say. President Bush signed the papers authorizing that designation of him last night. What's interesting is there wasn't a crime to charge him with.

He arrived on May 8th in Chicago on what U.S. officials say was a reconnaissance trip on behalf of al Qaeda looking for targets, looking for ways and means of hitting them. But there wasn't a crime that had yet been committed. There wasn't a clear target yet.

Although they do tell us Washington D.C. was the likely target. And here is how Deputy Secretary of Defense Wolfowitz put it on that matter.


PAUL WOLFOWITZ, DEPUTY SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: 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.


ENSOR: Now this announcement was made by Attorney General Ashcroft from Moscow, and he described why the designation as an enemy combatant. It makes it possible to interrogate him frankly in a more aggressive fashion. Here's how Ashcroft put it.


JOHN ASHCROFT, ATTORNEY GENERAL: The safety of all Americans and the national security interest of the United States require that Abdullah al Mujahir be detained by the Defense Department as a enemy combatant. In determining that al Mujahir is an enemy combatant, who legally can be detained by the United States military, we have acted with legal authority, both under the laws of war and clear supreme court precedent, which establish that the military may detain a United States citizen who has joined the enemy and has entered our country to carry out hostile acts.


ENSOR: Now officials are saying he joined the enemy by traveling to Pakistan, meeting with Abu Zubaydah, who is the senior al Qaeda operative now in U.S. hands and under interrogation. Probably a major source for this information about Padilla. And he met in Karachi, officials say, at least twice with senior al Qaeda officials.

He also had training in Lahore, along with another unnamed individual in the wiring and construction of conventional explosives. So this is a man that U.S. officials are saying, Leon, joined al Qaeda and was ready to come back to the United States and commit terrorism here.

HARRIS: All right. We've been talking about it quite a bit throughout the morning here, but give those who are just joining us right now a primer on what exactly a dirty bomb is.

ENSOR: It is not a nuclear weapon. Let's start with what it's not. It is not a nuclear weapon. It doesn't have the kind of impact of a nuclear weapon.

It is simply a conventional explosive that has been laced with or wrapped with radioactive materials, which could come from a hospital or from any number of other places that use radiological materials. And the design is to create panic.


ENSOR (voice-over): At a meeting of senior lieutenants of Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan within the past year, U.S. intelligence officials say, one person held up a cylinder claiming it contained highly radio active material. He waved it around as proof of al Qaeda's program towards building a radiological device often referred to as a "dirty bomb."

A dirty bomb is a crude device made by wrapping highly radio active material, such as spent nuclear fuel rods, around a conventional explosive like TNT. The radioactive active material would probably not raise the death toll but it could sew panic.

RIGER HAGENGRUBER, SANDIA NATIONAL LABORATORY: This would be a major psychological problem in a public way. But as a threat, it's not going to kill a lot of people, by and large.

ENSOR: The radio active material would make cleaning up the aftermath of a terrorist incident even more dangerous and difficult, experts say. But handled correctly, it wouldn't dramatically increase longer term health risks to those exposed. DAVID ALBRIGHT, INST. FOR SCIENCE & INTL. SECURITY: Even if it is a fairly significant radiological -- fairly significant radiological attack, it is not like, 20 years from now we are going to see this huge spike in deaths from cancer.

ENSOR: Al Qaeda's interest in learning how to make nuclear weapons is clear, from materials recently found by journalists and others in the group's safe houses in Kabul. There is also evidence the group has tried hard to obtain materials to make a nuclear bomb.

In the New York trial of al Qaeda members accused in the Africa embassy bombings, Jamaal Ahmend Al Alfadl (ph) testified that an attempt was made in 1993 to buy South African bomb grade uranium.

ALBRIGHT: My understanding is it was highly enriched uranium. And that they didn't get it and it was a scam.

ENSOR: That failure may not have stopped the efforts. In recent months, a senior Russian general said, terrorists -- he did not say which ones -- were seen snooping around some little known nuclear facilities in Russia.

PAVEL FELGENHAUER, RUSSIAN JOURNALIST: These are very secret places. And, of course, he didn't say any more, didn't go into other any detail, except that there were attempts of stalking and that they were foiled.

ENSOR: And in Pakistan, this man, Bashiruddin (ph) Mahmood (ph), and another former Pakistani atomic scientist have been detained. They are being questioned about their trips to Afghanistan and alleged meetings with Osama bin Laden. They insist they were only working for a Muslim charity.

(on camera): Still, it would be much easier for terrorists to get their hands on radioactive materials such as those used in medical research, not nuclear-weapons grade, but usable in a dirty bomb. And cleaning up after such an explosion, experts say, could take years.

David Ensor, CNN, Washington.


ENSOR: Still, it would be much easier, Leon, for terrorists to get their hands on radiological materials than bomb-grade materials. So this kind of a plot has to be taken very seriously indeed, and it has been.

HARRIS: Definitely. David Ensor, good work. Thank you very much, David. We'll be talking with you later on this afternoon. You're going to be quite busy today.

Well CNN is the only news organization that actually found dirty bomb documents in Afghanistan, as you heard David mention in his report.

Well joining us now from Washington is David Albright, who analyzed those documents. He is president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a nuclear proliferation watchdog organization. Thank you very much for your time this afternoon.

First of all, are you surprised to hear that there was someone here in the country here and it happened to be an American citizen involved in this kind of a plot?

DAVID ALBRIGHT, PRESIDENT, INSTITUTE FOR SCIENCE AND INTERNATIONAL SECURITY: I won't say I was surprised. Certainly concerned. I mean, if Al Qaeda was going to do an attack here, its use of U.S. citizens or people who could easily get into the country was almost a certainty.

HARRIS: How about -- give us an idea of considering that the fact that we're talking about a network of people, how many would you have to have together in some sort of conspiracy to actually pull something like this off, do you think?

ALBRIGHT: You don't need that many people to detonate a dirty bomb. It is not a very sophisticated device. If you can get the radioactive material, and can you get some high explosives and have some facility at using those high explosives, it can just require a few people.

You also need people to acquire the material, if it's not already in hand. You need people to scout out target. Prepare the way. So a handful of people can do this.

HARRIS: Do you think that there might be other plots that may be further along, more advanced than just the discussion stage, as we heard this was in?

ALBRIGHT: It's very hard to know. I mean, the pace of al Qaeda attacks is not that rapid. I mean, one every year or so. So this may be only one in the works.

HARRIS: Has any dirty bomb ever been detonated anywhere or is it just a theory at this particular point?

ALBRIGHT: I don't think there's ever been an actual detonation of a dirty bomb, but there's been several radiological accidents that really provide the baseline on trying to understand what could happen in such an attack. I mean, a case in Brazil where a radioactive source was stolen and then the material got out, and in the end four people died, mostly children. And they spread the material by foot and hand.

HARRIS: You know I saw those documents just -- as a matter of fact, was just handling them about maybe an hour ago. The documents that we were talking about that were found in Afghanistan. And I want to ask you if after your examination of documents do you think that this was something that required, I don't know, abnormal amounts of intelligence -- or not just money, but actual intelligence to figure out how to do this sort of thing? Was this just some sort of plan that was just cooked up in a back room somewhere? ALBRIGHT: It appears from theses documents that whatever al Qaeda was doing it would think it through. I mean, sometimes they were fairly ignorant or they made mistakes, but it appears that the group that was being trained in explosives -- kind of what we considered an advanced group. They had gone through the basic training and were, in a sense, in graduate school. That it was those people who would be looking at how to make a dirty bomb.

And one of the documents, while it doesn't explicitly talk about it, there is a design of what we viewed as a dirty bomb and not as a nuclear weapon.

HARRIS: OK. Explain the difference then if you can for us, in layman's terms.

ALBRIGHT: Well a dirty bomb is really just using explosives or some other means to disperse radioactive material. A nuclear weapons is you're actually trying to take special nuclear material called plutonium or highly enriched uranium and create a massive explosion using a nuclear reaction. And it's a dirty bomb really is meant to disperse the radioactive material across an area to deny people the ability to get into that area.

A nuclear weapon is meant to destroy buildings and whole blocks and cause massive amounts of glass (ph) burn and radiation casualties.

HARRIS: Now physically, how large would this device be? Let's go by the documents that you actually examined. How big physically would that device be? Would this be something that would be hidden in a vehicle or something that would be delivered by some sort of a rocket or perhaps carried by a suicide bomber?

ALBRIGHT: The size depends on the type of radioactive material that's being used. If it's something like plutonium, it doesn't have to be very large. I mean, you don't need very much shielding. Most of the weight would be the explosives, so it could be 50 kilograms or even less.

If it's highly radioactive material, like CZM137, that emits very intense gamma rays, you're going to have to put lead around it. So it may be 100 kilograms with shielding, which you probably remove before you detonate it. But the bottom line is these things are not very big. They're much, much smaller than a nuclear explosive.

HARRIS: And that makes this news today even more unsettling. David Albright, thank you very much. We sure do appreciate your time and your insight this afternoon. And thank you for going over this document for us.

HARRIS: Let's go now to the White House, where our John King has been standing by. He's been covering reaction from the White House on the stories developing today.

Hello, John.

JOHN KING, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hello to you, Leon. In just a moment we will hear from the president directly. He is meeting with the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at this moment. Reporters just brought in to the Oval Office, and we will have tape for you in just a matter of seconds.

Most of the question and answer in opening statements about the situation in the Middle East. But the president is asked about this arrest, and we know he signed off last night on the decision to turn the suspect over from the Justice Department to the Defense Department.

Let's listen in to the president.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's my honor to welcome back Israel's prime minister to the Oval Office. Every time the prime minister comes we have a very frank and good exchange. Today we talked about how to achieve peace in the Middle East. I reiterated my strong view that we need to work toward two states living side by side in peace, and we talked about how to achieve this -- how to achieve security and peace and economic hope for all people in the region.

I appreciate so very much the prime minister's coming and willingness to share his views about his country's future. And every time he comes I learn a lot.

And I want to thank you for coming, Mr. Prime Minister.


BUSH: Want to say a few things?

SHARON: First, I would like to thank you, Mr. President, for having me again here.

I think it was very interesting and fruitful talks about reaching peace in the Middle East. Israel is a peace-seeking country. We believe in peace. We are committed to peace.

Of course, in order to achieve peace in the Middle East, first of all, you have to have the security, which would be a full cessation of terror activity (ph) and incitement, and of course, we must have a partner for negotiations.

At the present time, we don't see yet a partner. We hope there will be a partner there with whom we'll be able to move forward, first, to achieve a durable peace in the area and, second, of course, to provide security to the citizens of our countries.

And of course, one of the most important things is how are (ph) we to take the necessary steps to make the life of the Palestinians and other nations (ph) in the region better than they are now.

These, I would say, were the main subject of our talks today. Again, thank you so much.

BUSH: Fournier (ph), and then we'll alternate.


BUSH: That's good. That's a good -- that's a reform.


BUSH: There are people in the Middle East who want to use terror as a way to derail any peace process.

And we've got to work together to create the conditions that prevent a few from stopping what most people in the region want, which is peace.

Israel has a right to defend herself. And at the same time, as Israel does so, the prime minister is willing to discuss the conditions necessary to achieve what we want, which is a secure region and a hopeful region.

And that's why we discussed reforms necessary for the -- that would enable a Palestinian Authority to emerge which could give great confidence to two people -- the Israelis and, as important, the Palestinians. And that's important.

And so we're going to continue to work together, along with some of the Arab leaders, to fight off terror, to prevent the few from dictating against the will of the many in the region.

QUESTION: Mr. President, there's wide concern within the Israel government that after the next (OFF-MIKE)

BUSH: I don't think Mr. Arafat's the issue.


BUSH: Excuse me for a minute. Let me start over.

I don't think Mr. Arafat's the issue. I think the issue is the Palestinian people. And as I have expressed myself, I'm disappointed that he has not led in such a way that the Palestinian people have hope and confidence.

And so, therefore, what we've got to do is work to put institutions in place which will allow for a government to develop, which will bring confidence not only to the Israelis, but the Palestinians.

QUESTION: Mr. President, sir, what can you tell us about the dirty bomb plot?

BUSH: Yes.

QUESTION: Is there still a threat that this could happen? Was Washington, D.C., the target?

BUSH: I can tell you that we have a man detained who is a threat to the country, and that, thanks to the vigilance of our intelligence gathering and law enforcement, he is now off the streets, where he should be. And I'll let the Defense Department and Justice Department comment on the specifics.


BUSH: Look, I think here's the thing. I think that we need to have a -- first of all, let's get the summit in context. You're talking about the proposed summit this summer, a ministerial summit of people to come together to work toward the conditions necessary to establish a peace.

See, the conditions aren't even there yet. That's because no one has confidence in the emerging Palestinian government.

And so first things first, and that is, what institutions are necessary to give the Palestinian people hope and to give the Israelis confidence that the emerging government will be someone with whom they can deal? And that's going to require security steps, transparency when it comes to economic matters, anti-corruption devices, rule of law enforced by a court system.

Now, it is very important for people to understand that, as these steps are taken and as people work together to achieve the institutions necessary for peace, that there is a political process on the horizon as well.

But the ministerial meetings that the Secretary of State Colin Powell suggested, are all aimed at achieving working toward the foundation necessary for there to be confidence and eventual peace.

BUSH: Thank you all.


KING: The president meeting in the Oval Office with the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon. Much of the discussion about the Middle East -- the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And despite that upbeat talk from the president, if you listen to what he said and what the Israeli leader said, certainly no moving any closer of the Israeli position and the Arab position at this moment. Prime Minister Sharon saying there must be, in his view, a full cessation of the violence and a partner for peace before he is willing to negotiate with the Palestinians.

Mr. Sharon, of course, makes no secret of the fact that he will not negotiate with the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat. Mr. Bush saying he will continue to try to bridge the differences on that dispute, and the president there making his first comments on the arrest this morning of the suspect in the so-called "dirty bomb" plot. Mr. Bush saying a man is detained who was a threat to our country. (UNINTELLIGIBLE) of U.S. intelligence and law enforcement sources, but the president saying he will say very little about this case right now, leaving the specifics to the Defense and the Justice Departments -- Leon.

HARRIS: Well, John, let me ask you about that man, Abdullah al Mujahir. He is an American citizen and he has been designated as an enemy combatant, and the president signed off on this on Sunday night, as I read in your reports here. What was his thinking, and what does that exactly mean?

KING: Well one thing it does not mean is that this man would face a military tribunal. Remember in the controversy about that in recent months, the president issued a directive that only non-U.S. citizens could be put before a military tribunal. White House officials saying there is no thought, at least at the moment, of rethinking that policy.

Why is he then designated as an enemy combatant? It allows the government to hold him longer without charging him. It allows him fewer rights than he would receive in the federal justice system.

And we are told the president made this decision last night on the recommendation of Attorney General John Ashcroft and the Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, because today was the deadline to decide. They faced a deadline in the federal court system. The Justice Department could no longer hold the suspect without designating him, charging him, bringing him into court if necessary.

So President Bush signed off on that last night. He is being held, as you said, as an enemy combatant, meaning someone at war with the United States. Any decisions about charging him would be made down the line. He faces more interrogation, and the U.S. officials telling us behind the scenes they want to know much more about any associates he might have had here in the United States and anyone he was working with overseas.

HARRIS: John King at the White House, thank you very much. We'll talk with you later on.


HARRIS: Let's go now to Washington. Our Kelli Arena has been checking into the background and give us some more details on this suspect, Abdullah al Mujahir -- Kelli, what have you learned?

KELLI, ARENA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Leon, he was born Jose Padilla in New York City in 1970. He is 32 years old. He moved when he was about five years old from New York City to Chicago.

We are told that he's had some unspecified juvenile issues in the court system, which, as you know, when you're a juvenile, those are under seal and remain so. But in 1991, he was arrested on gun charges and was held in a Florida state prison for one year. After that, he lived for some time in an area called Sunrise, Florida -- I'm told it's near Fort Lauderdale -- for a while. But since 1998 he has been out of the United States living in the Middle East, primarily in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

As we know from earlier, he is said to have converted to Islam while he served that year in prison, and went on to refer to himself as Abdullah al Mujahir instead of Jose Padilla. But that is a little snapshot of what we know at this point about this man, who apparently, according to justice officials, was trying to do some major harm to fellow Americans.

HARRIS: Definitely. Kelli, do we know any more about perhaps who he may have been talking to or who he was linked with either here in the U.S. or elsewhere?

ARENA: Well I'm sure the FBI and Justice know. I have gotten a firm "no comment" on that. As you know, the attorney general and the FBI director were asked in that press conference about associates that also may be in custody, no one touched it.

And in our digging after the fact and trying to find out, because, as you know, the FBI director said that this was very much in the planning stage, that this was in the discussion stage. Well who did he have those discussions with? One does not talk to, you know, one's self when you're talking about possibly putting together a dirty bomb. No information has been made public yet, although I can tell you we are certainly trying on that front.

HARRIS: And one last quick question here, Kelli. The fact is he really hadn't done anything until this particular point. He has only been planning in this particular case. Any legal implications with that?

ARENA: Well I've spoken to a few legal experts, and the thinking, the general thinking is, is that this is someone who investigators obviously had a great deal of concern about. They had corroborated evidence that he had been involved in the discussion and in the plotting of being a dirty bomb to the United States.

However, as we did hear from the FBI director, he had not gone so far as to buy any material to make that dirty bomb. Had not, as far as we can tell, made any contact with anyone to purchase any material. This was very much in the early discussion stages.

Legal experts say that at the very best you can come up with a conspiracy, although the charge is a little weak. They think that perhaps he was moved over to military custody because they just could not come up with a firm enough charge that would have held in the civil system. So get him over to the military arena and there he can be kept indefinitely as an enemy combatant.

They have some time. And U.S. officials obviously feel strong enough that this person was a danger to the United States. How do you hold him? That's the way to hold him.

HARRIS: Interesting -- very interesting. Kelli Arena, thank you very much, Kelli. Nice work there.

ARENA: You're welcome, Leon.

HARRIS: Let's go over to Miles O'Brien who's here in our studio here in Atlanta. He' been digging up some more information on the so- called dirty bombs, and he's going to give us a little primer on that -- Miles.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Leon, a quick apology to some our viewers who have been watching for some time now. This may sound a bit repetitive, but we think it's worth repeating because it's so important. Let's talk first of all about a nuclear explosion. What is a nuclear explosion. As we look at graphic of one of the nuclear tests that we have seen over the years. First of all, in a nuclear explosion has weapons-grade plutonium. That weapons-grade plutonium, or highly enriched uranium, has to obtain a thing called critical mass. Critical mass means it's packed in just a perfect way in order to unleash literally the power of the sun as the atoms are split.

Finally, a trigger device has to be included in this as well. It has to be properly timed. It has to be well aimed. It is something that is not done very simply.

So, in essence, this that we are talking about, this dirty bomb, is not a nuclear explosion at all. We will put a red slash through that. Get that out of your mind. Forget the mushroom clouds. What the dirty bomb is, is a psychological and economic tool. It is an explosion that spreads radiation and, thus, spreads fear.

Let's look at some of the issues that go along with this. Radioactivity is spread. That could cause some radiation sickness. Long-range, it might cause some cancers. But the experts I have talked to say, more than anything, if those Geiger counters went off as rescue workers went in in the wake of an explosion, it would cause fear. And it might have some economic retribution. And this, after all, is a major goal of the terrorists who are focusing on the United States right now.

Where would you get this radioactive material? Fuel rods from nuclear reactors, that's one possible source. That is a very tightly regulated source, however, of nuclear waste. It is, however, in the process of being shipped across the country. And that is a potential weak spot, although the people in the nuclear industry deny that. They say it is very safe and they've never had an incident over the years.

So, just to restate, this is not a nuclear explosion. This is not splitting the atom, harnessing the power of the sun, causing a tremendous blast which would cause a tremendous number of casualties initially.

OK, let's look at, one more time, about the sources where you might find this kind of thing. Spent nuclear fuel is a big possibility. You have the possibility of nuclear waste at the nuclear facilities over the years, the places where the Manhattan Project, where the bombs were built -- nuclear waste sites, in many cases.

Medical waste is a very common possible source of this kind of material. Medical waste is not as tightly regulated. Materials, say, used in X-rays, for example, could possibly be used in this case, and in those barrels of waste, whether it's cesium or strontium 90, that kind of thing. Now, all of this, would should point out, is tightly regulated in the U.S. But you have to consider that there is a global black market in many other countries, things that are not as tightly regulated. In the former Soviet Union, there is a very healthy black market. And let's not forget that Pakistan is a nuclear power. And the possibility of some of that being nuclear material there is very much on people's mind today -- Leon.

HARRIS: Boy, Miles, that was everything I could possibly think to ask you about that. Very nice job, Miles O'Brien. Thank you very much.

We are back with more in just a moment after a break. Don't go away.



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