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Friday, 14 June, 2002, 09:17 GMT 10:17 UK
'Dirty Bomb' plot: Your questions answered
BBC correspondent Paul Reynolds answered your questions about the "dirty bomb" plot and its implications in a live forum.

  Click here to watch the forum.  



Transcript


Newshost:

Ian, UK asks: I find it very disturbing that a citizen of a country can be arrested and held without charge for an indefinite period. Don't you think if he's committed a crime he should be charged with it and given the chance to defend himself?


Paul Reynolds:

This is a very interesting question and actually goes right to the heart of the American constitution because the man arrested - a man who calls himself al Muhajir - he used to be known as Jose Padilla, that's what he was born as and he was actually a small-time crook in Chicago - he converted to Islam and the Americans now say he is a terrorist. But as a US citizen he should certainly be facing court unlike those characters in Guantanamo Bay who are not and being held by the military.

But there is a precedent for this. It goes right back to the Second World War when the Germans landed two groups of saboteurs; one on Long Island in New York and the other in Florida. They were all arrested and the Supreme Court said: if you enter the country as an enemy citizen or as someone who has joined enemy, you can be handed over to military custody and that's what happened in this case.


Newshost:

But surely there could be a legal process whereby you must surely be able to go all the way to the Supreme Court?


Paul Reynolds:

It may well do because undoubtedly one of these civil liberties groups in the United States will challenge this. The government is saying this is the basis on which we are holding him - these groups will challenge the government and it will go through the courts and might well go up to the Supreme Court eventually.


Newshost:

Ben Crouch, UK asks: The reaction to this has been rather melodramatic. Low grade radioactive material isn't going to wipe out a city. We are talking about a big bomb killing tens of people and a hefty clean-up operation - not a nuclear explosion.


Paul Reynolds:

This is not a nuclear explosion, what it is, is a conventional bomb surrounded with nuclear material which will then spread out across the city. He has raised an interesting point but I think the answer to it is this: the bomb itself won't do much damage but the fallout will.

There was an exercise in Washington DC in the spring this year by a group which analysed what would happen if a bus filled with TNT surrounded with radioactive material was set off outside the Air and Space Museum which is the most popular museum in the centre of Washington, between the capital and the Washington monument. The exercise found that a lot of people would be killed in the museum by the explosion but that a radioactive cloud would go across Washington inducing panic - and that's the key thing - inducing the evacuation of the centre of Washington.


Newshost:

Just to add here, you spent several years as a Washington correspondent. Can you imagine what sort of panic a dirty bomb would cause - even a small one?


Paul Reynolds:

Washington became a deserted city virtually on 11 September after the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. If something like this went off in Washington, or indeed in London, Paris, Berlin, or any city, you can imagine what would happen. People would evacuate and run because they would not know now dangerous this radioactive cloud might be.

Now you say an exercise found that the radioactivity was not huge but it would probably lead not to immediate deaths but to an increase in the incidence of cancer some years ahead. But the whole of government would virtually have to move out to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.


Newshost:

Paul Connell, UK asks: The Americans say they have arrested one man for the dirty bomb plot, surely it would need more than this one person to plot and organise and detonate this device, there must be other operatives in the USA who will carry on this idea


Paul Reynolds:

We don't really know the extent of the plot. What John Ashcroft, the US Attorney General, said, when he announced this on a visit to Moscow, was that the suspect, had been in Pakistan and was a protégée of a man which the Americans have been questioning in Guantanamo Bay called Abu Zubaida and what the US officials are saying is that Zubaida picked this man out - this Chicago gangster, turned Islamic radical - as a likely operative. Rather like the Brit, Richard Reid, the guy accused of setting up his shoe up to blow up and trying to bring down the plane across the Atlantic. He was a petty criminal who became an Islamic fundamentalist. It appears that this is a similar tactic because it's easier to use such people to get into the country than a foreigner without a US passport. But we don't yet know the extent of the plot but obviously it wasn't gong to be a one-man band.


Newshost:

It does sound as though it was in its preliminary stages.


Paul Reynolds:

It does and this is where some of the suspicions about whether the Americans are hyping it up are coming from. Because even Ashcroft said that the suspect was only exploring a plan - he didn't even say he was executing a plan.


Newshost:

Zafar, England: The US administration is using this to deflect from all the attention of last week. Does this mean anyone who has "allegedly" looked up anything on nuclear materials, i.e. simply read information will get dragged up in front of a military court?


Paul Reynolds:

No I don't think the Americans will be that stupid because they'd have to round up millions of people on the internet and although the US and other governments are trying to acquire new powers to monitor what people are doing on the internet, it is out of the question they can just pull in anybody they feel like. But they have to have evidence and it's not in their interest to arrest too many people because it would simply waste their resources. So I would say to Zafar - no, this is not a realistic possibility.


Newshost:

Nick Toye, UK: Couldn't this all be a cynical propaganda exercise by a president with falling popularity. Still, judging from this forum at least people are now prepared to question the actions of the US Government instead of being scared off by the flawed anti-patriotic argument.


Paul Reynolds:

Well this has been going on since 11 September - you're exaggerating the threat and therefore you can declare a war on terrorism, you can trample on civil liberties, you can go to war in Afghanistan and all because of some threat. I think the American answer to that is well, look what on 11 September - we did not see this coming and now they're saying al-Qaeda is investigating at least the possibilities of a dirty bomb, surely we have the right to defend ourselves. But people are questioning the timing of this because there are Congressional hearings in the United States into the failure - the CIA and the FBI to join up the dots before 11 September - they could perhaps have predicted that and avoided it. So people are saying - how very convenient for you to come up with the arrest of this character at this particular time.


Newshost:

The arrest was a month ago.


Paul Reynolds:

I think the announcement might also have been connected to the judicial procedure in the United States, meant that he had either got to be charged or handed over to the military by this date. So I think that might have had something to do with it as well. They also needed time to try to interrogate him - though the word is he is not giving anything away.


Newshost:

Khalid, Pakistan: Could al-Qaeda really be capable of carrying out such an attack? This announcement by US agencies is doubtful especially when you consider the timing of such warnings.


Paul Reynolds:

I think Khalid has a perfectly fair point. Are they really capable of such an attack? Even Ashcroft, the US Attorney-General is not saying that this attack was imminent or had been advanced beyond a discussion stage. But certainly we know from documents found in Afghanistan subsequent to the war there that al-Qaeda was certainly looking at nuclear possibilities. Osama bin Laden himself has talked about the duty to use such weapons if you can acquire them. So it is not unreasonable to assume that they've made inquiries and therefore not unreasonable that these are very capable people. The operation to attack the World Trade Center was fantastically well planned and executed and I don't think anybody can say that this is beyond the capabilities of al-Qaeda. They'd have to get hold of the radioactive material. Now the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the United States says there are 2 million registered radioactive devices which are used in things like the radiation of food, for example, and medical procedures. It is not impossible they could get hold of one or two.


Newshost:

Linda A. Barbosa, USA: Not everything is as simple as it appears on the surface, one must think about the complications of law and incentive. If the arrested man chooses to cooperate, he can do so and face reduced charges or prison time; if he does not, he should face the death penalty.


Paul Reynolds:

At the moment I think he is probably just facing indefinite detention. My own view is that they probably don't have evidence they can bring forward in court - that a lot of this is intelligence evidence and the courts in America are very, very strict on what evidence you can bring in. Maybe they've a judgement, they don't either want to disclose their sources or that it might be inadmissible - it might be second or third hand or surveillance-type information because I think they would have charged him if they could have charged him. They charged another American citizen, John Walker Lindh - the character they found in Afghanistan. So he's been charged and someone else has as well. But I think in this case probably the evidence they have they believe but they don't believe it would be necessarily good enough in an American court.


Newshost:

What implications does this have internationally - could there be a precedence set say, for example it happened in Britain? Say we had really good intelligence information from MI6 perhaps. Could this same situation arise?


Paul Reynolds:

The British Government already has taken powers to hold foreign non-British UK citizens who might be suspected of terrorist activities. These powers were taken shortly after 11 September. It would be more difficult for them to hold a British citizen but governments are very clever in these situations. I don't think many people knew about this ability to hold a US citizen under military law.

If you go back not just to the Second World War but to the Civil War - the guy who shot Abraham Lincoln in Ford's Theatre in Washington, John Wilkes Booth, was a southern sympathiser who was captured and executed by a military commission. During the Civil War, Lincoln suspended the operation of habeas corpus - which means literally, I haven't a body, you have the body and you must produce it in court and governments can do all kinds of things. This is the great argument at the moment - where does the balance lie between preserving civil liberties and preserving life.


Newshost:

C Paterson, France (English ex-pat): Isn't the real problem not perceived failures at the CIA/FBI, but the failure of past and present US foreign policy - Kyoto, steel, farming, axis of evil, Israel/Palestine, etc, etc?


Paul Reynolds:

I think the questioner is mixing up a number of things here. The al-Qaeda people are not particularly concerned about Kyoto, they are not particularly concerned about US steel imports. What their agenda is, is a fight-back by the Islamic world as they see it against domination by foreigners. This includes not just the US and its allies but Saudi Arabia - the Saudi Royal Family - the Egyptian government. Saudi Arabia and Egypt are where this battle is being fought. The Egyptians have been fighting this war against fundamentalists for many years and they've been very, very repressive. The Saudis have produced a lot of these - Saudi citizens - Osama bin Laden, his own family is now in Saudi Arabia, although originally from Yemen. So this is not just about US foreign policy, it's about power within the Islamic world itself. But certainly this e-mail has raised the issue of - to put it crudely - did the Americans have it coming to them - which is what people have said very woundingly for Americans since 11 September and obviously that feeling still persists to judge by this e-mail.


Key stories

European probe

Background

IN DEPTH
See also:

10 Jun 02 | Americas
04 Jun 02 | Americas
30 May 02 | Americas
03 Jun 02 | Americas
17 May 02 | Americas
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