Transcript: Justice Dept. on Padilla

U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Comey held a press conference in Washington D.C. Tuesday to explain the detention of “dirty bomber” suspect Jose Padilla and his alleged plans to blow up targets in the United States.

Good afternoon, folks.

On April 22nd, Senator Orrin Hatch, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, sent a letter to the attorney general asking the Department of Justice and the Department of Defense to supply whatever information we could about American citizens being held as enemy combatants here in the United States.

As you know, there are two such people:  Yaser Esam Hamdi and Jose Padilla.  Much is known about Hamdi, who was captured on the battlefield in Afghanistan.  Much less is known about Jose Padilla, in part because rules about classification have long restricted what we could say about him publicly.

For months, even before getting Senator Hatch's letter, we have been working to compile and declassify what we know about Padilla from his own statements, from the statements of other Al Qaeda detainees around the world, and from intelligence sources around the world.

Senator Hatch's request energized that process, which involved the Department of Justice, the Department of Defense, along with the FBI and other members of the intelligence community.
Because so many important questions have been raised about the detention of Jose Padilla, held after being captured on American soil, all those agencies have worked as hard as they possibly can to declassify as much as they possibly can.

And while some information remains classified about Padilla, those efforts of those agencies have resulted in an answer to Senator Hatch's question that is remarkable for its scope, its clarify and its candor.

That answer, which was provided to Senator Hatch earlier today, and also provided to Padilla's lawyer, and to our own Department of Justice lawyers handling his case in court, enables us for the first time to tell the full story of Jose Padilla.  It will allow the American people to understand the threat he posed, and also understand that the president's decision was and continues to be essential to the protection of the American people. It will also serve to underscore the danger that we still face from Al Qaeda, and why that terrorist organization so badly wants operatives who can move freely into and out of the United States.

Let me tell you the sobering story of Jose Padilla. In 1998, Padilla flew from Miami to Cairo, where he spent the next year and a half.  He has admitted that in March of 2000, he attended the religious pilgrimage, the hajj, in Saudi Arabia.  And there he met a man from Yemen who was a recruiter for Al Qaeda, and they discussed the training opportunities Al Qaeda offered in Afghanistan.

Two months later, at this recruiter's request, Padilla traveled in May of 2000 to Yemen where the recruiter introduced him to a sponsor, somebody who could arrange for his training in Afghanistan by Al Qaeda.

In June of 2000, Padilla made that journey.  He went to Pakistan, and then traveled overland to Kandahar, Afghanistan.

He has admitted that there he completed an application to receive training at an Al Qaeda camp, sponsored by the man he met in Yemen, who helped him fill out the paperwork.

The FBI found Padilla's application to the Al Qaeda training camp.  They found it in a binder that contained 100 other such applications,  type-written each with the title at the top, "Mujahideen Identification Form/New Applicant Form."

Padilla's application was dated July 24th of 2000 and bears one of his aliases, Abu Abdullah Muhajir (ph).  It bears his date of birth, October 18th, 1970.  It shows that he is an American citizen; that he speaks Spanish and English and is proficient at Arabic; that he has traveled to Afghanistan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Padilla has admitted that after filling out his application, he attended the Al Farouq (ph) Al Qaeda training camp in September and October of 2000, using the name Abdullah al-Espani (ph).

Padilla says he went to the camp with the understanding that he would be sent to Chechnya to fight for jihad, although he recognized that the recruits of Al Qaeda were offered no guarantees.
According to Padilla, his training included weapon's instruction on AK-47, on G-3, M-16, Uzi and other machine guns; training on topography, communications, camouflage, clandestine surveillance, explosives, including C-4 plastic explosives, dynamite and mines; as well as physical fitness and religious training.

Padilla completed this basic terrorist training successfully, and then spent three months in the fall of 2000 with other new Al Qaeda recruits guarding a Taliban outpost north of Kabul, Afghanistan.

Padilla admits that he first met Al Qaeda's military commander, Abu Hafs al-Masri, better known as Mohammed Atef.  He met him in Afghanistan when Atef approached this American in the Al Farouq (ph) camp, and checked him out to gauge his suitability and his commitment to the cause.  Atef no doubt spotted the tremendous value this American terrorist offered because he met with him again several times, even giving Padilla money to go back to Egypt to visit his wife.
In early 2001, Padilla walked into the American consulate in Karachi, Pakistan, and said his passport had been lost in a market in Karachi and got a new one:  a classic act of Al Qaeda tradecraft designed to eliminate suspicious travel stamps and cover the nature of the traveler's work.

In April 2000, having completed his basic terrorist training and having found a mentor in the military leader of Al Qaeda, Mohammed Atef, Padilla departed Karachi, Pakistan, and returned to Egypt, ending his first trip to Afghanistan.

Two months later, in June of 2001, Padilla returned to Afghanistan and sought out Mohammed Atef.  He met with Atef at a safe house that was reserved for the instructors and the leaders of Al Qaeda.  According to Padilla, about a month later, his mentor Atef asked him a question.  He asked his American disciple if he was willing to undertake a mission to blow up apartment buildings in the United States using natural gas.  Padilla told him he would do it.

Atef then sent Padilla to a training site near the Kandahar airport, where Padilla would train under the watchful eye of an Al Qaeda explosives expert and be trained with the man who was to be his partner in this mission to destroy apartment buildings, another Al Qaeda operative.  When Padilla saw this other operative, he recognized him immediately because he had known him from Florida.

Padilla and the other operative trained under the guidance of this explosives expert and learned about switches and circuits and timers.  They learned how to seal an apartment to trap the natural gas and to prepare an explosion using that gas that would have maximum yield and destroy an apartment building.

I told you that Padilla recognized this other Al Qaeda operative who was to be his partner, recognized him immediately.  You will, too. Because that other operative was Adnan Shukrijumah, also known as Jafaflict led them to abandon this operation, although only temporarily, after Padilla reported to Atef that he didn't think he could work with Jafar and he couldn't work this operation alone.

As I continue with Padilla's story, let me note, as the attorney general and Director Mueller did last week, that Jafar took another path and remains out there somewhere and is extraordinarily dangerous: an explosives expert who is also an experienced commercial pilot.

Padilla admits that after this specialized explosives training, he spent much of September of 2001, including after the attacks of September 11th, staying with Mohammed Atef at Atef's safe house near Kandahar.  That was the same safe house where Atef was killed by American forces after it was bombed in November of 2001 in a military raid.

Padilla's life was spared only because he happened that night to be staying at the safe house run by his explosives teacher.  But he returned and dug his mentor Atef's body out of the rubble.  And then, according to Padilla, a decision was made that all Arab fighters had to be moved out of Afghanistan because the Americans were coming.

Padilla, armed with his assault rifle, joined many other Al Qaeda fighters in moving to the Pakistan border to escape the American forces.

At that border, Padilla met Abu Zubaida for the first time.  Abu Zubaida, one of the most important and powerful members of Al Qaeda, was in charge at that border of sorting fighters into two groups:  those who should continue on and be relocated to Pakistan and those who should be sent back into Afghanistan.

Padilla admits that after crossing into Pakistan he met Zubaida again at a safe house in Lahore, Pakistan. and then met with him, yet again, at another house in Faisalabad, Pakistan.
Padilla says it was at the place in Faisalabad that he and a new accomplice, a new partner, approached Abu Zubaida with an operation in which they proposed to travel to the United States to detonate a nuclear improvised bomb that they had learned to make from research on the Internet.

Padilla says Zubaida was skeptical about the idea of them building and deploying a nuclear bomb, but nonetheless told them he would send them on to see Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, also known as KSM, the operational leader of Al Qaeda and the mastermind behind September 11th.
We know separately that Zubaida did think the nuclear bomb idea was not feasible but he did think as well that another kind of radiological device was very feasible:  uranium wrapped with explosives to create a dirty bomb.  Zubaida believed this was feasible and encouraged Padilla and his accomplice to pursue it.  He warned them, though, that it would not be as easy as they might think.  But they seemed convinced that they could do it without getting caught.

Zubaida's plan was to use Padilla and his accomplice for Zubaida's own operations in the future.  But they were so eager, so intent on carrying out an operation in the United States, that in March of 2002 he sent them to see Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, even going so far as to write a reference letter to Khalid Sheik Mohammed about Padilla, giving Padilla and his accomplice money and urging them to seek out KSM about the dirty bomb plot.

Zubaida separately called Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, told him about the dirty bomb project and also told him he didn't think it was practical, but he wanted Khalid Shaikh Mohammed to check it out himself and to evaluate it.

He told Khalid Shaikh Mohammed that he was free to use Padilla in his operations in the United States if he wished.  Mohammed did meet with Padilla and his accomplice and he was, as Zubaida was, skeptical about the dirty bomb plot.

Instead, he suggested to Padilla and his accomplice that they undertake the apartment building operation that had originally been conceived by the now-dead Mohammed Atef, the former military leader of Al Qaeda.

KSM suggested that they enter the United States by way of Mexico or by way of Puerto Rico, and that once in the country, they locate high-rise apartment buildings that had natural gas supplied to all floors, that they rent two apartments in each building, seal those apartments, turn on the gas, and set timers to detonate and destroy the buildings simultaneously at a later time.  This was precisely the mission that Padilla and Jafar had trained for, and now Padilla had a new accomplice.

Khalid Shaikh Mohammed gave Padilla full authority to conduct an operation if he and his partner succeeded in entering the United States. I should note that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was not himself sure which operation Padilla intended to carry out.  By that I mean in Khalid Shaikh Mohammed's mind, it was still possible that Padilla was going to pursue the dirty bomb plot.  What KSM knew for sure, however, was that he had authorized this explosives-trained Al Qaeda operative to mount an attack in the United States.

Padilla, for his part, admits that he presented the dirty bomb plot to Khalid Shaikh Mohammed just as he admits he presented it to Abu Zubaida.  Padilla says that Muhammad wanted him to hit apartment buildings in New York, although they also talked about Florida and Washington, D.C. Padilla was given the discretion about choosing the apartment targets.

According to Padilla's new accomplice, who is also in custody, the one who replaced Jafar, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed wanted them to blow up 20 apartment buildings simultaneously.
In response, Padilla pointed out that he could not possibly rent that many apartments without drawing attention to himself, and that he might have to limit this operation to the destruction of two or three entire apartment buildings.

Padilla, by his own admission, accepted this terrorist assignment.  Although, as our answer to Senator Hand he was never really planning to go through with it.

He does admit, however, that after accepting Khalid Shaikh Mohammed's assignment, Ramzi Binalshibh, who was the coordinator and organizer of the 19 hijackers on September the 11th, trained Padilla in using telephones securely and in Al Qaeda's e-mail protocol.

And Khalid Shaikh Mohammad himself, according to Padilla, gave $5,000 cash to Padilla.  And then Amar al-Beluki (ph), who is Khalid Shaikh Mohammad's right-hand man, gave Padilla another $10,000 in cash, travel documents, a cell phone, an e-mail address to be used to notify al-Beluki (ph) when the operative Padilla reached the United States.

Padilla also says something else remarkable.  He says that the night before his departure, he and his accomplice attended a dinner with Khalid Shaikh Mohammad, with Ramzi Binalshibh and with Amar al- Beluki (ph).  That is, the night before Jose Padilla left on his mission to the United States, he was hosted at a farewell dinner by the mastermind of September the 11th, and the coordinator of those attacks.

After that dinner, Padilla departed Pakistan on April the 5th, 2002, bound for the United States, by way of Zurich.

After spending a month in Egypt, Padilla traveled on and arrived at Chicago's O'hare International Airport on May the 8th of 2002.  He was carrying over $10,000 in U.S. currency given to him by his Al Qaeda handlers.  He was carrying the cell phone provided to him by Amar al-Beluki (ph), Khalid Shaikh Mohammed's right-hand man.

He was carrying the names is telephone numbers of his recruiter and his sponsor, and the e-mail address for Amar al-Beluki (ph), who he was to contact upon safely reaching the United States.
Padilla was arrested by the FBI in Chicago on a material witness warrant authorized by a federal judge in New York.  And he was transferred to Manhattan where I was then the United States attorney.

He was appointed a lawyer at public expense.  And we set about trying to see if he would tell the grand jury what he knew about Al Qaeda.

With time running out in that process, on June 9th of 2002, just about two years ago, the president of the United States ordered that Padilla be turned over to the custody of the Department of Defense as an enemy combatant, where he remains.

We have decided to release this information to help people understand why we are doing what we're doing in the war on terror and to help people understand the nature of the threat we face, and in particular to help people understand why it is so important that we find Jafar, Adnan Shukrijumah, the pilot trained with Padilla in explosive destruction.

Much of this information has been uncovered because Jose Padilla has been detained as an enemy combatant and questioned.  We have learned many things from Padilla that I'm not going to discuss today and that we did not include in our answer to Senator Hatch.

Had we tried to make a case against Jose Padilla through our criminal justice system, something that I, as the United States attorney in New York, could not do at that time without jeopardizing intelligence sources, he would very likely have followed his lawyer's advice and said nothing, which would have been his constitutional right.

He would likely have ended up a free man, with our only hope being to try to follow him 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and hope -- pray, really -- that we didn't lose him.

But Jose Padilla was more than a criminal defendant with a broad menu of rights that we offer in our great criminal justice system.  On May the 8th of 2002, a soldier of our enemy, a trained, funded and equipped terrorist, stepped off that plane at Chicago's O'Hare:  a highly trained Al Qaeda soldier who had accepted an assignment to kill hundreds of innocent men, women and children by destroying apartment buildings; an Al Qaeda soldier who still hoped and planned to do even more by detonating a radiological device, a dirty bomb, in this country; an Al Qaeda soldier who was trusted enough to spend hour after hour with the leaders of Al Qaeda, Mohammed Atef, Abu Zubaida, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed; an Al Qaeda soldier who had vital information about our enemy and its plans; and lastly an Al Qaeda soldier who, as an American citizen, was free to move in, within and out of this country.

Two years ago, the president of the United States faced a very difficult choice.  After a careful process, he decided to declare Jose Padilla for what he was, an enemy combatant, a member of a terrorist army bent on waging war against innocent civilians.  And the president's decision was to hold him to protect the American people and to find out what he knows.

We now know much of what Jose Padilla knows.  And what we have learned confirms that the president of the United States made the right call and that that call saved lives.
Thank you.  I'll take your questions now.

QUESTION:  Why don't you bring criminal charges against him now?

COMEY:  Well, what we're going to do is use all legal tools available to protect the American people from Jose Padilla.  I'm not ruling out that criminal charges might not be an option some day.  We, obviously, can't use any of the statements he's made in military custody, which will make that option challenging.

QUESTION:  Did the Justice Department decide to release this information today in response to questions that were raised about how the announcement was handled last week by Shukrijumah and the others?

COMEY:  No, the Department of Justice decided to release this today because it was done today.

This has been something that I personally have worked on for months, almost since the first moment I became deputy attorney general because every place I went to speak, people would say, "We agree with you with the war on terror but we've got a problem with this Padilla thing.  I wish I knew more about it."  And I very much wanted people to know what I knew about Jose Padilla to address those questions.

Those are important questions and I hope that this information will inform those questions.

QUESTION:  Are you concerned that Shukrijumah is going to continue with those plans to blow up apartment buildings?

COMEY:  Our concern is broader than that.  Our concern is that Shukrijumah is a trained terrorist bent on killing hundreds of people however he could do it.
I mean, that's the lesson of this.  Padilla and his accomplices, as with all of Al Qaeda, would go with any plan that would result in maximum death and destruction.
So we have a broad concern:  We need to find that guy.

QUESTION:  (OFF-MIKE) accomplice; you haven't named him.  Is there a reason why?  Can you tell us who he is?

COMEY:  We have not declassified his identity so I can't tell you who the accomplice is right now except to tell you he's in custody.

QUESTION:  Why not?

COMEY:  For a variety of reasons that I can't go into right now.

QUESTION:  So you would you describe the release of this information as a coincidence considering that the Supreme Court is about the rule on the Padilla issue?

COMEY:  Yes, I would.  If it had been done sooner, it would have been released sooner.  If it wasn't done from a month from now, it would be done.

Those of you who know the government know how long it takes, how difficult it is to get multiple agencies who are holders of classified information, particularly in this context, to release that, to declassify it.

This was a huge task, worked on very, very hard by a lot of people who care that the American people have the information to answer some of these questions.

QUESTION:  Do you plan on having the solicitor general file some sort of supplemental documents with the Supreme Court on this information?

COMEY:  I don't think so.  I think it's too late.  This has not been made part of the record in the Supreme Court.  The case was argued at the end of April.  And we're not doing this -- I'm not doing this to influence the Supreme Court case, which I assume is over.
I'm doing it as soon as it was done so that in the court of public opinion people could better understand why we've done some of the things we've done.
This is something, as you know, that generated a lot of controversy.  And I and my brothers and sisters in law enforcement could not answer the questions that were being asked.  Now we can answer them.

QUESTION:  You said that if you had picked him up under criminal charges that he would have gotten a lawyer, would have clammed up and would have walked free.  But couldn't you have done what the Justice Department does thousands of times every year and offered him a plea agreement to work with you?

COMEY:  All the time we offer plea agreements and people cooperate if we have a hammer over them.  The challenge of the Padilla case, for me as the United States attorney, was the absence of a hammer.  If I can't credibly threaten criminal charges, no lawyer in the world is going to tell their client to talk to me, because a good lawyer would know, what I'm sure Mr. Padilla's lawyers knew, that if you just clam up, they can't do anything with this.

QUESTION:  So does that suggest that possibly he was picked up too soon, because you didn't have enough on him to pick him up on charges where you could actually bring criminal charges?

COMEY:  I don't think he was picked up too soon.  I think it would have been derelict to allow him to come into the country and to hope to follow him.

We have a wonderful FBI and they follow people every day, and well.  But only on TV do they do it 24 hours a day, seven days a week, without losing someone.

And when you're talking about someone bent on the kind of destruction, mass murder, that we're talking about here, you simply can't run that risk.

QUESTION:  So at this point, you have no plans to present any of this to a grand jury?

COMEY:  No, we do not have any plans to present this, the information I've given you today, to a grand jury.  I don't believe that we could use this information in a criminal case, because we deprived him of access to his counsel and questioned him in the absence of counsel.

This was done not to make -- the questioning of Jose Padilla, something else I should point out, was not undertaken to try and make a criminal case against Jose Padilla.  It was done to find out the truth about what he knew about Al Qaeda and threats to the United States.
We could care less about a criminal case when right before us is the need to protect American citizens and to save lives.

We'll figure out down the road what we do with Jose Padilla. What the president wanted to do and what was done was find out what he knows, figure out how it links up with other things that we know and give us a picture of what the enemy's planning.

QUESTION:  How does your refusal to grant access to an attorney for him throughout the process fit into this?  You have now indicated that he may have access, as I understand it, and...
COMEY:  And he's had access to counsel.

QUESTION:  ... already happened.  But what -- that being the case, if you're not going to bring charges any time soon, for reasons that you've explained, and yet he has access to counsel, where does that leave him in the long run?  Do we wait till the war?  Does he remain in military custody until the war on terrorism is over, whenever that is?

COMEY:  Well, that's an issue that we are thinking about actively.  As we understand the law, the president has the power to hold him as a soldier of the enemy until the hostilities are over, whenever that might be.  But there may be other options for him that we will explore.
I'm not squaring off bringing a criminal case.  What I was saying was, I don't believe we can use his statements made in military custody against him.  So if there's a criminal case to be made separate and apart from that perhaps that's an option.
Our goal is to do whatever the law allows to protect the American people from this character.

QUESTION:  What other options are there?  Besides military custody and bringing charges in a civilian court, what else -- what's the realm of possibilities?

COMEY:  I don't know.  I know we have a lot of smart people in this building.  I'm sure they are thinking about it as we speak.

QUESTION:  Was the accomplice an American citizen?

COMEY:  I can't say that at this point.  It's not in what we filed.

QUESTION:  But, I mean, wouldn't that be pertinent to our understanding if there's yet another enemy combatant, another American citizen being held?

COMEY:  I think -- and this is probably risky whenever I'm thinking out loud.  But I think in what was sent to Senator Hatch, the accomplice is described as someone who had refugee status in the United Kingdom, which would allow him to travel there.  And, obviously, folks from the United Kingdom can travel to the United States without a visa.

QUESTION:  Do you worry that if you do bring criminal charges at some point against him, that with such a rousing indictment that you've set out today, that you've now tainted the jury pool?

COMEY:  I don't, because juries have been selected in cases of all sorts of high-profile -- Jose Padilla has been a fairly high- profile character since the president designated him an enemy combatant.  So that's something a district judge would deal with.

I'm not saying that's going to happen, but I was just talking about options.

QUESTION:  Just as a follow-up, since [inaudible] and in Iraq, on Padilla to get the information:  stress and duress or whatever things?

COMEY:  The question about Geneva Conventions you'd have to ask the Department of Defense.  I know that he was not mistreated.  This interrogation was conducted by the FBI, working with the Defense Intelligence Agency.  I have great confidence that those folks did it the right way.

QUESTION:  The recruiter -- he was given his number when he got here.  Does that suggest that he was in the United States, or reachable through here?

COMEY:  He had contact information, I believe telephone number and perhaps e-mail -- but I think just telephone number -- for his recruiter.  But we have not laid out in this document anything about him contacting the recruiter once he got here.
The recruiter was a Yemeni whom he met while attending the Hajj in Saudi Arabia.  His sponsor was also a Yemeni.  He didn't meet him until the recruiter took him to Yemen.  The sponsor arranged for him to get through Pakistan to the Al-Farouq (ph) camp.

QUESTION:  There are lots of references in here that indicate that much of this information came from Padilla confessing, or whatever you want to call it.  Can you talk about how much of it is corroborated by interrogations with others, or were you completely relying on Padilla for Padilla's story?

COMEY:  No, it's heavily corroborated.  And that's what I meant by the scope and candor and clarity of this document.  This bears reading, because what we've done is put in there all the interlocking corroboration, as well as where things don't agree.
In my experience as a prosecutor, one of the hallmarks of truthfulness tends to be stories don't line up exactly.  But the core elements do, and we've tried to include it all:  include what Padilla says that undercuts what others say that's inconsistent.
But it's heavily, heavily corroborated.  We are very confident that Padilla's admissions are correct.

QUESTION:  Why did you decide to give him access to an attorney when you did? And does that mean that you've finished interrogating him?

COMEY:  The Department of Defense made that judgment, and I believe at the time that they did that they said the reason was his intelligence value no longer required that he not have access to a lawyer.

In other words, they were largely done with him.  He had largely admitted all of this conduct -- all of his efforts, and that giving him access to a lawyer would not break up the interrogation process.

QUESTION:  We've read a lot in the media about Jose Padilla and his motivation.  Did he disclose anything new or reveal anything in his conversations with interrogators about his motivations for joining Al Qaeda, and any psychological reasons why a U.S. citizen would join Al Qaeda?

COMEY:  Well, I think one of the things that we included in that document was that he continues to maintain he never swore an oath of bayat to Usama bin Laden, so never officially joined Al Qaeda.

Now whether that's credible or not given the quality time he spent with Atef, Zubaida and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, something that not your average tourist got to do, is a separate question.
But we have not included in this document the extended exploration of his state of mind.

QUESTION:  Last week, the attorney general received some criticism for the announcement that he made regarding terror concerns. Is there a reason why it's you up there today and not him?

COMEY:  I asked for this assignment.  With the support of the attorney general, this has been my mission, in part because I was the United States attorney who had Padilla two years ago and in part because of my frustrations of the questions -- good questions from good people about Padilla -- that I could not answer…

I very much wanted to see if I couldn't push forward, with the attorney general's backing, an effort to get this information out to the public. People are right to question when the president of the United States orders the military detention of an American citizen in the United States.  And I very much wanted to have some of the answers for folks.  And now we do.

Thank you for your time.