There's been so much finger-pointing, blame-spreading, leaking, insinuating, and even falling on swords over Attorney General John Ashcroft's announcement last Monday morning from Moscow about Jose Padilla, that it's a bit difficult to sort it all out.
One thing is for sure, according to two Justice officials: Ashcroft will not be making any major announcements anytime soon.
The problems last Monday were both substantive and technical. As has been widely reported, the White House expressed some dismay at the strong language and dire message the attorney general seemed to be conveying. In front of a dark background, he ominously declared that the government had disrupted "an unfolding terrorist plot to attack the United States by exploding a radioactive dirty bomb."
And part of the announcement was delivered twice; a rehearsal was mistakenly carried live, complete with aides brushing off his jacket and spraying his hair.
A large part of the problem appears to have been that the information was so closely held among a few top Justice aides, that the wiser counsel of some who could have both tempered the language and smoothed the transmission was either ignored or not sought.
There was such a rush on the part of some of these top aides to have Ashcroft himself make the announcement, that they did not consider the added impact of his coming on live from Moscow.
The hastily set-up press conference at Justice that soon followed, with Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, and FBI Director Bob Mueller, helped somewhat in putting the attorney general's announcement into perspective, but as one Justice official admitted to me, their job had been made unnecessarily difficult by the attorney general's wording and demeanor.
And by the next day Wolfowitz was even declaring that he didn't "think there was actually a plot beyond some fairly loose talk ..."
Despite President Bush and his spokesman's supportive words on the record, it was clear behind the scenes that the White House was dismayed that loose talk about dirty bomb plots could panic the nation. The stock market briefly sank.
The eagerness in the past months of some of aides to have Ashcroft personally deliver every Justice announcement, no matter how trivial or hastily prepared, has now supposedly been tempered. There is said to be a realization they have either created or lent credence to a perception that the attorney general has been grandstanding, and a belated understanding that quality may be preferable to quantity.
I apologize for the semi-omniscient tone, but most are leery of being caught discussing the subject. However, Justice spokeswoman Barbara Comstock provided the following statement:
The attorney general's statement regarding Abdullah al Muhajir, which should be read in its entirety, along with the entirety of the remarks made by all the officials, was made to share important information with the public about threats posed by an al Qaeda operative. We know that al Qaeda operative, Abdullah al Muhajir, was receiving training in detonating bombs and exploring a plan to build and explode a radioactive dirty bomb. He was a very dangerous man who has been taken off of the streets of the United States where he will no longer be in a position to do harm to innocent American citizens.
Criminal Chief of Staff Departing