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U.S.: Suspected 'dirty bomb' plot included plan to blow up apartments

Jose Padilla
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Declassified documents allege Jose Padilla planned other attacks.

U.S. authorities detail Jose Padilla's alleged contact with al Qaeda.

Attorney: Padilla being denied chance to prove innocence.
United States
Justice Department
Jose Padilla

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Justice Department alleged Tuesday that Jose Padilla, an American citizen held without charges in a military jail for the past two years, not only plotted to detonate a radioactive "dirty bomb" inside the United States, but he also conspired to blow up as many as 20 high-rise apartment buildings in a separate attack.

Deputy Attorney General James Comey revealed the allegations in a Tuesday news conference by reading a newly, declassified six-page summary of Padilla's alleged activities with al Qaeda, the Islamic terrorist organization behind the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and numerous other attacks around the world.

The summary, a more detailed version of information provided in federal court two years ago, was prepared at the request of the Senate Judiciary Committee, to justify the government's continued detention of Padilla as an "enemy combatant" without filing any criminal charges -- a procedure now under review by the Supreme Court.

"We are releasing this information to help people understand why we are doing what we are doing," said Comey, who called Padilla "a soldier of our enemy, a trained, funded and equipped terrorist ... who had accepted an assignment to kill hundreds of innocent men, women and children." (Transcript of Comey news conference)

Comey said the Justice Department is unlikely to file criminal charges anytime soon against Padilla -- in part because the evidence against him comes partly from admissions he made without the presence of an attorney during Defense Department interrogations .

"If they have evidence that he did something wrong, indict him and give him a forum where he can defend himself as every American citizen has been able to do for the last 225 years," said Andrew Patel, one of the attorneys representing Padilla.

Donna Newman, another attorney for Padilla, derided the new information as a one-sided exposť and likened Comey's presentation to a prosecutor's opening statement at a trial the government refuses to hold.

"The government is simply saying, 'Look you're gonna have to trust us, this is what he said.' I don't know that's what he said," Newman said. "He could be dangerous. Like any other case that comes before a court, there's always that possibility. And then you go to trial and a jury decides that." (Newman speaks to CNN)

The story of Padilla's alleged four-year odyssey, from 1998-2002, into the terrorism underworld, came as Vice President Dick Cheney, in a speech in Kansas City, Missouri, accused Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry of being soft on terrorism.

Cheney urged the renewal of the USA Patriot Act, passed in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, which granted domestic law enforcement agencies access to national security information and greater powers of surveillance.

President Bush declared Padilla an enemy combatant in June 2002, about a month after his arrest.

"It was done to find out the truth about what he knew about al Qaeda and the United States," Comey said. "We could care less about a criminal case."

Padilla, 33, has sued to obtain his release, claiming he is unlawfully imprisoned.

The Supreme Court heard arguments about Padilla and the case of "enemy combatant" Yaser Hamdi in April and is expected to issue an opinion within a month. (Supreme Court case background)

The government denied Padilla access to counsel until earlier this year, but Patel and Newman have since visited Padilla twice at the naval brig in Charleston, South Carolina. Each meeting was monitored by the military.

U.S. outlines allegations

The allegations against Padilla were also derived from statements obtained from senior al Qaeda leaders in U.S. custody, including Khalid Shaiykh Mohammed, the group's chief of operations who oversaw the September 11 plot, and Abu Zubaydah, a senior lieutenant to the group's leader, Osama bin Laden, who oversaw recruiting for the terror camps in Afghanistan.

Comey said that the Brooklyn-born Padilla, a former gang member who converted to Islam and moved to Egypt in 1998, attended al Qaeda's basic training camp in Afghanistan in the fall of 2000, after being recruited by a Yemeni man he met during a pilgrimage to Mecca.

Padilla learned how to fire Kalashnikov rifles and AK-47 machine guns, surveillance and coded communication techniques, and how to make explosives, Comey said.

He came to the attention of Mohammed Atef, al Qaeda's former military commander, who once gave him $1,400 to visit his home in Egypt in late 2000 before returning to Afghanistan, Comey said.

The apartment bombing scheme was originally Atef's idea in July or August 2001, according to Comey, who noted that Padilla admitted helping pull Atef's lifeless body from the rubble of a Kandahar safe house after it was bombed by U.S. forces that November.

Adnan el-Shukrijuman, one of seven people the Justice Department announced last week it was seeking in connection with terrorist plots, was to have been Padilla's partner in the plot, Comey said, but went in a different direction when he and Padilla didn't get along.

The plan called for Padilla and an accomplice to rent apartments, seal the buildings so that natural gas could build up, and set off massive explosions with timers, Comey said. The targets may have been in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Florida.

Padilla also admitted, Comey said, that he proposed to Zubaydah and Mohammed that he set off a radiological bomb -- the so-called "dirty bomb" -- inside the United States using uranium material stolen in the U.S.

"KSM was unsure what operation they would finally pursue," Comey said.

Al Qaeda gave Padilla $20,000 before he left Pakistan in April 2002. He was carrying $10,526 in U.S. currency when he was arrested at Chicago's O'Hare airport one month later.

On his last night in Pakistan, Comey said, Padilla admitted attending a send-off dinner with Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh, one of the coordinators of the September 11 hijackers. It was Binalshibh who taught Padilla telephone security and e-mail protocol, Comey said.

All three high-ranking al Qaeda operatives are in U.S. custody at undisclosed locations overseas. The detainees, as Padilla's accomplice, have provided information to corroborate Padilla's admissions, the summary document said.

CNN Senior Producer Phil Hirschkorn contributed to this report.

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