Democrats suspicious of arrest announcement
THE WASHINGTON TIMES
Several Democratic lawmakers yesterday questioned whether the Bush administration was trying to deflect criticism of the FBI by revealing the capture of a "dirty bomb" suspect one month after his arrest.
"The information was available earlier — why was it not announced?" asked Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, adding that he wants to know why Attorney General John Ashcroft disclosed the May 8 arrest while in Russia on Monday.
"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.
But the South Dakota Democrat was quick to add, "I am certainly confident that the administration would not politicize this issue."
Mr. Ashcroft announced the detention of Abdullah al Muhajir, also known as Jose Padilla, a New York native, just this week although federal authorities arrested him upon his arrival from Pakistan at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago. He said the suspect, whom he called "an enemy combatant," had been planning to build and detonate a radiological bomb in the United States. Al Muhajir is in U.S. military custody in South Carolina.
The announcement came after a week in which lawmakers and others criticized the FBI for not aggressively investigating terrorism suspects before September 11. President Bush credited "the vigilance of our intelligence gathering and law enforcement" for the capture of al Muhajir.
Mr. Bush told congressional leaders of both parties yesterday at a White House meeting that the administration will tell Congress sooner about any new terrorism suspects.
"The president told us if they find other people or arrest other people like this, he would tell us about it," said Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican.
Asked whether she was suspicious about the timing of the announcement, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, said she will look into "rumors" that the government has a weak case against al Muhajir.
"I'm very concerned about rumors that there might not be much to it," said Mrs. Feinstein, a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. "I want to check it out."
Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, Connecticut Democrat, said the administration is waging too much of its war on terrorism in secret.
"I wonder if they have anybody else," Mr. Dodd said. "Everything is secret. They've got to hold people in secret. We've got to have secret meetings about homeland security. I'm getting concerned that this [announcement of a suspect] is a little hype here."
Republican lawmakers were generally less critical. But one Senate Republican who spoke on the condition of anonymity said questions about the timing of Mr. Ashcroft's announcement were "pretty wise."
"Did it have to be done [Monday]?" the lawmaker asked. "Why didn't they do something earlier?"
Sen. John McCain said Mr. Ashcroft should explain to Congress and the public the reasons for holding the suspect without disclosing it.
"He cannot be kept without some legal rights, the rights of a citizen, indefinitely," the Arizona Republican said. "I think there's going to have to be an explanation why he should not have the rights of a citizen. People who are a clear and present danger to the country have been held, and there's a rationale for that. They've got to make the case, that's all."
But others said the war on terrorism demands new rules.
"If you aid and abet the enemy, whether you're a citizen or not, you're not entitled to the right of due process," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat and a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "We don't give prisoners of war due process. There's the Geneva Convention and other rules. With this terrorism, that man is like a prisoner of war."
Said Mr. Lott, "He obviously is a very dangerous, sick person who would consider trying to develop the capability to detonate a dirty bomb. And he should be treated in the severest of manners in terms of the way he is retained and a trial — a fair trial — and if he's guilty, appropriate punishment."
Some Democrats who are frequent critics of the administration refused to impugn its motives for announcing the arrest this week.
"I'm not going to suggest that there is some other agenda here," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat. "He was in custody for a month, and I'm sure they were evaluating the evidence against him before they made their final decision. It's not unreasonable."
Sen. Bob Graham, Florida Democrat and chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence, said critics raised the same accusation last week, when Mr. Bush announced plans to create a Cabinet-level Office of Homeland Security on the same day that an FBI whistleblower testified to Congress about problems in the agency.
"I'm not into the motivation business," Mr. Graham said. "I'll give them the benefit of the doubt."