(Special Department of Justice press conference on the arrest of Abdullah al Mujahir, also known as Jose Padilla. Hosted by Larry Thompson, deputy attorney general. Also participating was Robert Mueller, director, Federal Bureau of Investigation.)
Thompson: 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.
Wolfowitz: Thanks, Larry. 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 device, 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 worked to bring about this result that makes the American people safer.
Q: 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 the conventional criminal process?
Thompson: His status, as the attorney general said in his statement, is as an enemy combatant. He is being attained under the laws of war as an enemy combatant. There's clear Supreme Court and circuit court authority for such a detention.
Q: What is the Supreme Court precedent?
Thompson: It's a 1942 case ex parte Quirin. And there's a 9th Circuit case, and I forgot the name of it -- it's in re Territo; it's a 1946 case.
Q: 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. Yes?
Q: Does he now? Does he now?
Q: Larry, how far did they get? How far did they get? Did they have -- had they assembled any parts of the weapon in the United States? Or try to acquire any parts of the weapon?
Thompson: I'll defer to the director on that question.
Mueller: 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.
Q: Director Mueller, 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 Zubaidah 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 -- that would be disclosed if we got into much detail at this particular point in time.
Q: (Off mike) -- confirm that 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 8th. What happened to him in all that time?
Thompson: I'll defer to where he might be by Secretary Wolfowitz -- where he --
Q: If that were --
Wolfowitz: We don't know. I mean, 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 planing 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 but one such individual.
Q: (Off mike) -- but he's been -- the second part of the question?
Staff: Yes, sir. Over -- yes, sir.
Q: Thank you, sir.
Over several years, there've 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 said repeatedly that there is a 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?
Thompson: I would not want to get into the specific details of that question. It may involve sources and methods. This 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 --
Q: But -- I guess -- from truly --
Q: Yes. Mr. Thompson or Mr. Mueller, you can't talk about this case in detail, but 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 anymore 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 --
Staff: Last question, folks.
Q: Do you believe he has any co-conspirators in the United States or outside the United States, and have you identified them? I assume if you have, you're looking for them. Can you say anything about that?
Thompson: We're not going to comment -- we're not going to comment on that.
Staff: Thank you.