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DIRTY TRICK; Nuclear bomb threat was overstated Furore deflected criticism of the FBI.

Byline: JAMES TAIT

US ATTORNEY General John Ashcroft was last night accused of exaggerating the threat from the dirty bomber.

US officials said his warning that Abdullah Al Muhajir planned to blow up Washington DC with a radioactive bomb was overstated.

The Democrats believe that the Republican government may have timed the claim to ease criticism of the FBI.

The intelligence agency was accused last week of not actively chasing terrorists before the September 11 atrocity.

After Al Muhajir, 31, was arrested on May 8, President George Bush praised the "vigilance of our intelligence gathering and law enforcement service"

But Senate majority leader Tom Daschle said yesterday: "If the information was available earlier why was it not announced?"

He said they may have been a "rush to bring it before the news media".

But FBI chief Robert Mueller indicated that Al Muhajir had no concrete ideas and no target for his planned attack with a conventional bomb filled with radioactive material.

Furious President Bush said Ashcroft had frightened the American people with his claims. He ordered a damage limitation exercise to calm the nation's nerves.

Ashcroft had dramatically interrupted a trip to Russia on Monday to make a live speech boasting of Al Muhajir's arrest. In his brief statement, he mentioned radiation or dirty bomb five times.

And he said US-born Al Muhajir was being held in a naval jail for the "safety of all Americans".

White House officials are said to have watched in disbelief as Ashcroft made his speech. Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz was then sent to give TV interviews to temper the claims. He said: "I don't think there was actually a plot beyond some fairly loose talk and Al Muhajir's coming here obviously to plan further deeds."

Ashcroft has been told emphatically he exaggerated the plot.

But speaking in Switzerland yesterday, Ashcroft said Al Muhajir showed that al-Qaeda still posed a serious international threat.

He said countries must exchange information because "there are too many al-Qaeda members still at large". He added: "We believe there is a serious threat.

-A U.S. military transport plane carrying around 12 special forces soldiers crashed during takeoff in Afghanistan yesterday. Officials said the cause was not known.

a.lines@mirror.co.uk
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Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jun 13, 2002
Words:374
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