Did Ashcroft Overstate Terror Arrest?

Since Monday, news reports have focused on the announcement by Attorney General John Ashcroft that a man had been captured who sought material to make a so-called dirty bomb.

Now, there are suggestions that the initial claims were overstated, needlessly frightening the public.

"We have disrupted an unfolding terrorist plot to attack the United States by exploding a radioactive bomb," Ashcroft said in Moscow as he announced the arrest more than a month earlier of Abdullah al Muhajir, who was born Jose Padilla in Brooklyn.

Al Muhajir is now in military custody. And Ashcroft is dodging criticism all the way home as the rest of the administration attempts to tone down the urgency of his announcement.

"I don't think there was actually a plot beyond some fairly loose talk and his coming in here obviously to plan further deeds," Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said on national television.

'The President Is Satisfied'

Inside the intelligence community, some were shocked by Ashcroft's description, because they believe something quite different about Padilla.

"This is someone who was at the beginning of a volunteer operation for al Qaeda, but he hadn't any capability," said ABCNEWS security consultant Vince Cannistraro. "He hadn't any organization and he hadn't assembled anything."

Publicly, the White House insists Ashcroft took the right approach.

"In this case, because of his training, because of the evidence we have that was brought forth by sources and methods which I am not going to discuss, we had strong reason to fear the worst," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters.

But behind the scenes, they say it could have been handled better.

"In hindsight, if we knew his statement would have been interpreted this way, we would have given it some second thought," a senior administration official told ABCNEWS.

This source said the White House did not receive the text of Ashcroft's statement until it was too late to revise it.

"We had no chance to review it," the official said. "Let's just say we wouldn't have written it the way they did."

The official said no one at the White House has chastised Ashcroft, "but it's the kind of thing not everybody is going to be happy about... I know the president is satisfied."

The Danger of Hyperbole

Some Congressional Democrats — still reluctant to criticize the administration during this terrorism crisis — tentatively suggested Ashcroft over-reached, to emphasize an intelligence success. Others went a little further.

"There is no question that the FBI and CIA were desperate to have the story line shift from 'screw-ups everywhere!'" said Norman Ornstein, a political analyst with the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

Homeland Security Chief Tom Ridge complained Wednesday that the White House can't win, whatever it does.

"If you don't bring this information to the public's attention, you're accused of neglect," he said. "If you do bring it to their attention, you're accused of hyperbole. And I think that's unfortunate."

Critics worry about the long-term effect of possible hyperbole. If it turns out al Muhajir actually was quite far from achieving the production of a bomb, the administration could lose some of its credibility — first with the politicians, then with the public.

Lawyer Seeks Release of al Muhajir

Al Muhajir, 31, is being held in solitary confinement in a military brig in Charleston, S.C., and has been labeled an "enemy combatant" by the Justice Department, even though he is a U.S. citizen.

Al Muhajir's lawyer, Donna Newman, filed a petition in federal court in Manhattan on Tuesday claiming the government's case against her client was "weak at best" and demanding his release.

U.S. District Judge Michael Mukasey set a June 21 deadline for the government to respond or have the case transferred to another district.

Newman's petition claims government agents secretly held al Muhajir in a federal jail in Brooklyn on a material witness warrant issued by a New York grand jury after his arrest in May.

Government lawyers say Supreme Court precedent empowers them to detain and try even U.S. citizens in military courts if they fight against the United States. Officials said their first priority is to get information from al Muhajir, not to prosecute him.

"We are not interested in trying him at the moment. We are not interested in punishing him at the moment. We are interested in finding out what in the world he knows," said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Newman, al Muhajir's lawyer, said her client was "very upset" by his treatment since his arrest.

"He was moved everywhere in a three-piece suit of irons," she said. "The circumstances were very, very upsetting. He is no different than any other American; he is a human being and a citizen."

ABCNEWS' Jackie Judd, Terry Moran, Pierre Thomas, Terry Moran and Brian Hartman contributed to this report.