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DOJ announcement of Padilla arrest criticized

From John King
CNN Washington

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The White House has made clear to the Justice Department that it believes the announcement of the arrest of the so-called "dirty bomb" suspect Jose Padilla could have been handled better, several senior administration officials said Wednesday.

In the view of the White House, they said, it would have been best if Attorney General John Ashcroft, who was traveling in Russia, had let deputies back in Washington make the announcement,

The officials, however, said they did not view the discussions as the sign of any major disagreement and described them more, as one put it, as "internal discussions based on how it played out and perhaps how it could have been handled a little bit better."

The White House was involved in discussions Sunday night and Monday morning in which it was decided to announce the arrest because of the president's decision to have Padilla -- identified initially by his adopted name, Abdullah al Muhajir transferred from Justice Department custody to the military and held as an "enemy combatant."

The president's decision was made because of a legal deadline.

Because both Ashcroft and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld were traveling, the initial plan was for the developments to be announced in Washington by their deputies, Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, along with FBI Director Robert Mueller.

"But Justice decided this was a big deal and that the first word should come from the attorney general," one White House official said. Those plans were passed on to the White House and there was no attempt to stop Ashcroft from making the announcement in Moscow.

But after the fact, some senior administration officials questioned the move, noting that Ashcroft delivered the statement from a dark studio and took no questions. And some thought his language suggested the plot was more advanced than others in the administration have said.

Two senior officials said that if Ashcroft's statement is read in its entirety, it is plain he did make clear the plot was in its initial stages. "But in hindsight it is clear that was not the best way to do it -- that it would have been better to let the deputies make the announcement and answer some questions to put it all in context," one senior official said.

Asked if the White House believed Ashcroft exaggerated the threat, this official pointed to remarks by Bush calling Padilla "a threat to the nation" and "a would-be killer."

Said the official: "The attorney general said nothing inaccurate. But doing it that way gave it sort of an ominous look and feeling. We think it would have been better left to the deputies. That said, the attorney general has the full and complete support of the president and everyone in this building."




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