June 10, 2002, the day John Ashcroft announced the arrest of Jose Padilla, marked a low point in Ashcroft's career as Attorney General. The FBI had nabbed Padilla, a.k.a. Abdullah al-Muhajir, a full month earlier, at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, and Ashcroft happened to be in Moscow when the government decided to disclose the arrest. Unwilling to leave the announcement to anyone else, he breathlessly took to the airwaves to declare that the Administration had "disrupted an unfolding terrorist plot to attack the United States by exploding a radioactive dirty bomb." "Let me be clear," Ashcroft said. "We know from multiple independent and corroborating sources that Abdullah al-Muhajir was closely associated with al-Qaeda, and that as an al-Qaeda operative he was involved in planning future terrorist attacks on innocent American civilians in the United States."
Ashcroft's peculiar exercise in self-promotion backfired badly. For one thing, it infuriated the White House. Not only did the Attorney General seem to take credit for the arrest, but he rather overstated its drama. Any dirty-bomb plot—if that's what Padilla was indeed involved in—was far from "unfolding"; it had barely been hatched, as other officials hastened to clarify. Padilla, an American and a former gang member who had committed murder as a juvenile and had become a Muslim in prison, had returned to the United States from Pakistan in order to scout out possible targets for al-Qaeda attacks, according to the government. Detonating a dirty bomb was one of the possibilities he had researched in Pakistan, where he had allegedly spent time over a few years meeting and training with al-Qaeda operatives. But as Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz explained at a later news conference, "There was not an actual plan." The FBI stopped Padilla "in the initial planning stages."