Officials: Dirty Bomb Suspect a 'Small Fish'

Some Officials Say Padilla Is a Minor Figure

W A S H I N G T O N, Aug. 14 — The government media blitz after the arrest an American accused of plotting to detonate a radioactive bomb was almost unprecedented for a terrorist suspect post-Sept. 11.

Attorney General John Ashcroft held a news conference via satellite while visiting officials in Moscow. Justice Department officials in Washington called him a significant terrorism figure and President Bush weighed in to agree.

But two months later, U.S. law enforcement officials close to the case say José Padilla is probably a "small fish" with no ties to al Qaeda cell members in the United States.

The FBI's investigation has produced no evidence that Padilla had begun preparations for an attack and little reason to believe he had any support from al Qaeda to direct such a plot, said one of the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Still, some authorities believe Padilla should remain detained.

Padilla, 31, is being held in a military brig in South Carolina as an enemy combatant, a legal designation allowing the government to jail him without formal criminal charges. His attorney has argued in court that he is being held illegally and should be released.

Investigators have said they believe Padilla, a Muslim convert and a former Chicago gang member, ventured overseas in search of clerics connected to the most radical branch of Islamic fundamentalism.

In early June, Ashcroft announced from Moscow via satellite hookup that Padilla was arrested at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago. Ashcroft's deputies also convened a news conference in Washington.

"We have disrupted an unfolding terrorist plot to attack the United States by exploding a radioactive dirty bomb," Ashcroft said, adding that the government's suspicions about Padilla's plans came from "multiple, independent, corroborating sources."

Now, two law enforcement officials close to the case say there is no evidence a plot was under way. However, one had been "thought out as a possibility," an official said.

Padilla's attorney, Donna Newman, said the government was avoiding a court case because it has little evidence against him.

"What we could analyze from government statements is that they didn't have sufficient evidence to charge him," Newman said. "All they could do was allege that he was somehow involved in the talking stages of a plan and they didn't even allege his role. And that is supposed to be enough to hold him without trial?"

Justice Department officials declined to comment on the matter Tuesday.

A "dirty bomb" does not produce a nuclear explosion; it spreads radioactive material over a large area. Scientists say it is more likely to cause widespread sickness and panic than deaths.

Since Padilla's arrest, the government has been more low-key in announcing arrests of terrorism suspects. No news conference was held when James Ujaama was taken into custody last month in Denver. Instead, law enforcement officials simply confirmed the apprehension when reporters asked.

Ujaama was arrested as a material witness to terrorist activity and flown to Virginia. Federal authorities say they believe he supplied computer equipment to an al Qaeda terrorist camp in Afghanistan.

Most of the information that led to Padilla's arrest came from captured al Qaeda operational chief Abu Zubaydah, officials said. Zubaydah, the highest-ranking terrorist leader taken into U.S. custody since Sept. 11, was captured and wounded in a raid in Faisalabad, Pakistan, in late March.

One U.S. law enforcement official said the information Zubaydah is supplying during interrogations is not always accurate and investigators are treating his comments with increasing skepticism.

For months, Padilla worked out of Lahore, Pakistan, and twice met with senior al Qaeda operatives in Karachi in March, government officials have contended. Padilla and the others are alleged to have discussed a radiological weapon plot, as well as proposals to bomb gas stations and hotel rooms.

Investigators have since decided Padilla may have attended the meetings more as an observer than a participant, one U.S. official said.

Still, other officials suggest Padilla was important to the government's terrorism investigations. A senior law enforcement official said he may have been a scout, chosen for his ability to move around the United States legally with a driver's license and passport.

There are no plans to bring Padilla before a military tribunal and U.S. officials have argued he can be held until the government declares an end to the war on terrorism.

— The Associated Press

How Will Schools Handle Sept. 11?

N E W Y O R K, Aug. 14 — With crayon drawings and building block toys, children in the New York area are still resurrecting the World Trade Center. Then they ignite the drawings in scribbled orange flames, and topple the blocks with their small fists.

Nearly a year after the nightmare of Sept. 11, children are still struggling to understand what they went through that morning.

Many parents are expected to keep their children home this Sept. 11, but the 1.1 million-pupil school system will be open and administrators are struggling to mark the day without triggering terrible memories.

So far, simple, brief and unforced are the themes.

"What we have learned and seen over the past year is that the impact is deep and how children respond is often unpredictable," Schools Chancellor Harold Levy said.

He said some schools may plan individual programs, but all will acknowledge the anniversary by observing the citywide moment of silence planned just before 10:30 a.m., the time the second tower collapsed.

At that moment last year, Monica Watt's daughter was gripping the hand of her second-grade teacher as they fled Public School 89, three blocks from the stricken trade center. Some students watched the first tower collapse.

Watt and other parents of children affected by the disaster say they agree with the idea of a brief observance at the start of the day.

"I think a lot of parents are not going to send their children to school that day, but if they go, I don't think ignoring it is better," Watt said. "I'm just concerned that it'll go on through the whole month and they're never going to be able to get away from it."

School officials said they never seriously considered canceling classes this Sept. 11 in keeping with Mayor Michael Bloomberg's position that public offices remain open. "We will carry on our responsibilities to our families and to our city," the mayor said.

Debbie Leach, whose 8-year-old daughter, Michal, attends P.S. 41 in Greenwich Village, said schools need to maintain a normal atmosphere.

"You have a little acknowledgment of what happened, and then go on with life," Leach said. "If you linger on it and have a whole day of memorials, it would be too much."

Watt said her 8-year-old daughter, Melissa, has not been able to sleep by herself since Sept. 11. Her 3-year-old son, William, saw people jumping from the towers that morning.

In their Battery Park City apartment overlooking the disaster site, the Watt children still draw pictures of what they saw. William carefully includes ladders to save the jumpers.

Parents say their children show signs of stress in their play, building and then destroying towers of blocks. A book of children's art, soon to be published by the school system, includes drawings of the trade center in flames.

A study released by city schools in May found that 76 percent of city schoolchildren often thought about the attack six months after Sept. 11; 24 percent had problems sleeping and 17 percent had nightmares.

The study also said an estimated 75,000 children showed six or more symptoms of post-traumatic stress — enough to be diagnosed with the disorder. Nearly 90 percent were suffering at least one symptom.

One recent afternoon, Andre Moten, 6, visited a park near ground zero for the first time since the attack. He used to come regularly with his grandmother and older brother, Shirod.

"I dream what happened to the World Trade Center," said Moten, clad in an "I love New York" T-shirt. "And in my mind I keep thinking that the World Trade Center fell down."

Schools in suburban areas that lost large numbers of people in the attacks are also mindful of grieving children as they plan for the anniversary.

In Middletown, N.J., where more than 30 children lost a parent, administrators plan to observe a moment of silence in all schools. Further programs may be planned by individual schools.

Levy said schools throughout the nation have flooded administrators with calls seeking guidance on how to prepare for the anniversary. They responded by creating a Web site with guidelines and suggestions, which they also distributed to city schools.

The 18-page handout warns teachers that children's needs will vary greatly on this year's Sept. 11: "No one way to memorialize will meet everyone's needs."

— The Associated Press

FAA Manager: Ohio Controllers Faced Sept. 11 Decisions

O B E R L I N, Ohio — Air traffic controllers believed they had a hijacked plane in the air over Ohio on Sept. 11. They just didn't know which plane.

During tense moments that morning at Cleveland Air Route Traffic Control Center, the first guess was that Delta Flight 1989 was hijacked, not United Airlines Flight 93.

"We knew right away we had a problem. The first thought was, 'Is that Delta 1989?'" said Rick Kettell, manager of the Federal Aviation Administration's busiest regional center.

Kettell talked Tuesday about the drama of the day for the air traffic controllers who had the last contact with United Flight 93 before it crashed in Pennsylvania.

The center, about 35 miles southwest of Cleveland, guides planes at high altitude as they fly over portions of seven states: New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana and Michigan.

The center's controllers were concerned about the Delta flight because it had departed Boston five minutes behind United Flight 175, which crashed into the south tower of the World Trade Center in New York.

"We knew the magnitude of what we were dealing with," Kettell said. "We knew what happened in New York before our involvement became very keen."

Shortly after Delta Flight 1989 checked in with the Cleveland Center while over Syracuse, N.Y., the center's controllers heard two transmissions that sounded like a cockpit struggle.

Meanwhile, Flight 93 had climbed to 41,000 feet over the Cleveland Center, and then over nearby Elyria turned 120 degrees to the southeast, a move that surprised controllers.

"We were finally able to deduce by the airplanes talking back to us which was the airplane not talking to us, and that was Flight 93," Kettell said.

While there was still no confirmed problem with the Delta flight, the center expressed concerns to Delta's headquarters in Atlanta, which instructed the plane to land at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. It was brought in moments before the Cleveland Center received an order to ground all planes.

Meanwhile, two more transmissions came in with a terrorist's voice speaking to passengers. By then, controllers knew for sure that it was the United flight that had been hijacked.

"What we don't know was whether one of the pilots keyed the frequency so we could hear it or if they [terrorists] hit the wrong button not knowing the equipment," Kettell said. "My thoughts are that probably the pilot was trying to help us."

Later that tense day, after most planes had landed, Oberlin police warned the center of a small plane still flying and headed toward the center. That warning resulted in a brief evacuation except for essential employees. Kettell said that plane simply flew past and was never identified.

No other center employee took part on the press briefing Tuesday. An FAA spokesman said the controllers involved still do not want to talk about it.

In June, the center dedicated a memorial on its grounds to recall those who died when the hijacked plane crashed. Etched in stone are the words: "In honor of the men and women of the Cleveland Center and those aboard Flight 93 for their heroic actions on September 11, 2001."

— The Associated Press

Senators Question Justice Dept.’s Cooperation in Probe

W A S H I N G T O N, Aug. 14 — The head of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a top Republican on the panel expressed concern Tuesday that the Justice Department was not fully cooperating with a probe into alleged security lapses in the FBI's translator program.

The program has played an important role in interpreting interviews and intercepts of Osama bin Laden's network since Sept. 11, including translating such sensitive documents as al Qaeda-related wiretaps, documents recovered in Afghanistan and interrogations of al Qaeda prisoners at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba.

The charges were raised in a letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft from committee chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the ranking Republican on the crime and drugs subcommittee.

Justice Department officials acknowledged receiving the letter but declined further comment.

The department's inspector general is investigating charges by FBI whistle-blower Sibel Edmonds, a former contract linguist for the bureau, of security problems with another linguist. Edmonds also charged the linguist with translating some innocuous information rather than important, intelligence-related material. Edmonds was fired last spring for performance issues.

"We are troubled that the Department of Justice, including the FBI, may not be acting quickly enough to address the issues raised by Ms. Edmonds' complaints or cooperating fully with the inspector general's office," the senators wrote.

FBI officials have said they believe the program is solid and secure. The Associated Press reported in June that the agency was investigating the charges.

— The Associated Press