Washington, D.C.—As Bush angrily backpedals away from Attorney General John Ashcroft’s statements Monday about the supposed dirty-bomb plot of former Chicago thug Abdullah al Muhajir (a/k/a Jose Padilla), Washington officials are nervously watching the nation’s top lawman and wondering what’s next.
Yesterday everyone here had their maps out to see whether their homes were in the range of the radioactive plume of the bomb the attorney general claims was going to be set off. Ground zero was near the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, extending across parts of the Capitol lawn, the Archives, the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art, and on into Union station. J. Edgar Hoover’s memorial FBI building seems to be out of the high-risk zone, and, of course, the CIA is across the river in Langley, Virginia.
According to press reports, the White House thinks Ashcroft made too much of Padilla, who has not been charged with a crime. The government attorneys apparently could not get an indictment out of a New York grand jury and, rather than let him go, handed Padilla off to the military. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, speaking from Quatar, says he might never be tried.
By this morning, there were charges flying around the capital that Bush had known about the Muhajir case for at least a month, and that Ashcroft released the information hurriedly only to divert attention from Intelligence Committee inquiries into the FBI and CIA handling of 9-11. The White House has been desperately trying to stay clear of accusations that the intelligence agencies knew about terrorist threats well before 9-11.
Up to now Bush has been letting FBI director Robert Mueller take the heat within the Intelligence Committee investigations, where the members of Congress and Spook officialdom are close buds and everything can be kept under a lid. But now Bush is having to push away from Ashcroft. Even though he’s high in the polls, Bush can’t afford bad press, because crucial elections determining control of Congress are coming up in the fall. So this is serious politics. If Ashcroft should go, then Bush is in danger of losing the Christian conservatives who form a small but important part of his administration and are among the most ferocious grassroots political campaigners.
“The information was available earlier. Why was it not announced?” asked Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who has proposed setting up a commission to investigate 9-11—a move Bush strenuously opposes. “I’m very concerned about rumors that there might not be much to it,” said Intelligence Committee member Dianne Feinstein. One anonymous Republican senator told the Washington Times, “Did it have to be done [Monday]? Why didn’t they do something earlier?” And John McCain said, “He [Padilla] cannot be kept without some legal rights, the rights of a citizen, indefinitely,” adding, “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.”