The Padilla Announcement Blame-Game

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

Friday was the last day of government service for Michael Horowitz, who has served as Chief of Staff for the Criminal Division for the last three and a half years.

He'll be joining the Washington office of Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft. But just consider that someone in a sensitive and supposedly political position was able to serve both the Clinton/Reno and Bush/Ashcroft departments! It says a lot about Horowitz's strengths that he could perform well for both.

Of course, it also speaks well for Criminal Division Chief Mike Chertoff that he had asked Horowitz to stay on. But even though Chertoff served as the bulldog chief counsel for former Sen. Al D'Amato's, R-N.Y., highly partisan Whitewater investigation a few years ago, in this office Chertoff is seen as much more prosecutorial than partisan.

And, as one official noted, Horowitz has been very good at the kind of handholding that the impatient and sometimes brusque Chertoff can't bring off — and, since Sept. 11, has not had the time for.

Not that Horowitz was merely a handholder; he was brought to the Criminal Division from the Southern District of New York by Reno's last Criminal Chief, Jim Robinson.

Robinson gave Horowitz wide discretion and he basically ran the division. Under the hands-on Chertoff, Horowitz reverted to a more traditional COS role, including serving as something of an "ombudsman" to the field. At Cadwalader he will be beefing up their white collar practice.

Matt Martens will be Chertoff's new chief of staff. He worked with Chertoff at Latham & Watkins and is regarded as very sharp. However, although he has trial experience, he's never been a prosecutor and is so young that one official asserted he has "underwear older than him."

But apparently to balance that youth and lack of prosecutorial experience, Chertoff is bringing back Dick Rogers to serve as deputy chief of staff. Rogers was Mike Shaheen's deputy in the Office of Professional Responsibility for years and years and most recently served on the staff of Judge Webster's commission on FBI security failings.

Leak Wars

FBI officials are variously exasperated and awestruck that the CIA managed to leak a story to the New York Times — played on the front page no less — about a promise it made to stop leaking.

It's an outgrowth of the blame game over who did or did not do more to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks. I have confirmed the central point, that Mueller after a briefing of the president, suggested a "truce" to Deputy CIA Director John McLaughlin.

It's also variously amusing and confounding that the CIA still does not believe that the Newsweek piece that started the ruckus was not an FBI leak but rather a compilation from various sites, with a big boost from the usual suspect, the Hill.

CIA folks are apparently either too naïve or too guilty of leaking themselves to understand that the FBI rarely puts things out first — although they can be more than happy to confirm somebody else's leak.

Beverley Lumpkin has covered the Justice Department for 16 years for ABCNEWS. Halls of Justice appears every Saturday.