I guess we’ll have to cross item #3 off the official White House list of ten serious al-Qaida terrorist plots disrupted since September 11.
Item #3, in case you forgot, is —
The Jose Padilla Plot: In May 2002 the U.S. disrupted a plot that involved blowing up apartment buildings in the United States. One of the plotters, Jose Padilla, also discussed the possibility of using a “dirty bomb” in the U.S.
Well, forget that. The charges against Padilla do not include plots to bomb apartment buildings or anything else in the United States. In fact, Padilla is such a minor figure he is barely mentioned in his own indictment. Neil Lewis reports in today’s New York Times:
Jose Padilla, whose newly unsealed indictment on conspiracy charges signals a marked change in the Bush administration’s legal approach to dealing with terrorism suspects, is mentioned only sparingly in the government’s account.
The indictment, announced Tuesday by the Justice Department, portrays Mr. Padilla as a distinctly minor though thoroughly willing player in a scheme run by others to support radical Islamic fighters in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya and elsewhere.
Padilla is alleged to have acted as a courier for four conspirators who ran bogus charities and businesses to raise money to send to the radical Islamic fighters. The four conspirators were indicted on the same charges last year.
Padilla has been incarcerated since May 2002. The Gubmint finally obtained an indictment against him two days ago.
The Bush Administration claims that it could not bring other charges against Padilla without violating national security. Apparently the “intelligence” that led to Padilla’s arrest came from two senior al Qaeda members held in secret prisons and, most likely, tortured. Douglas Jehl and Eric Lichtblau write in today’s New York Times:
The Bush administration decided to charge Jose Padilla with less serious crimes because it was unwilling to allow testimony from two senior members of Al Qaeda who had been subjected to harsh questioning, current and former government officials said Wednesday.
The two senior members were the main sources linking Mr. Padilla to a plot to bomb targets in the United States, the officials said.
The Qaeda members were Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, believed to be the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and Abu Zubaydah, a top recruiter, who gave their accounts to American questioners in 2002 and 2003. The two continue to be held in secret prisons by the Central Intelligence Agency, whose internal reviews have raised questions about their treatment and credibility, the officials said.
One review, completed in spring 2004 by the C.I.A. inspector general, found that Mr. Mohammed had been subjected to excessive use of a technique involving near drowning in the first months after his capture, American intelligence officials said.
Reason #17 torture is a bad idea: You can’t use the “results” in court.
In June 2002 Attorney General John Ashcroft made a big show — via satellite feed while visiting officials in Moscow — of announcing the arrest of Padilla. You can read the transcript of Ashcroft’s statement here.
But just three months after the arrest, word leaked out that there wasn’t much of a case. CBS News reported in August 2002:
The government media blitz after the arrest an American accused of plotting to detonate a radioactive bomb was almost unprecedented for a terrorist suspect post-Sept. 11.
United States Attorney General John Ashcroft held a news conference via satellite while visiting officials in Moscow. Justice Department officials in Washington called him a significant terrorism figure and President Bush weighed in to agree.
But two months later, U.S. law enforcement officials close to the case, say Jose Padilla is probably a “small fish” with no ties to al Qaeda cell members in the United States.
The FBI’s investigation has produced no evidence that Padilla had begun preparations for an attack and little reason to believe he had any support from al Qaeda to direct such a plot, said one of the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity.
When John Ashcroft triumphantly announced the capture of Padilla, he said the U.S. had already captured an accomplice in the nefarious dirty bomb plot. What happened to that guy? Jehl and Lichtblau explain:
In an interview on Wednesday, a British lawyer for another man accused by the United States of working as Mr. Padilla’s accomplice in the bomb plot also accused American officials of working to extract a confession. The lawyer said the United States had transferred the man to Morocco from Pakistan, where he was captured in 2002, in an effort to have him to sign a confession implicating himself and Mr. Padilla.
“They took him to Morocco to be tortured,” said Clive A. Stafford Smith, the lawyer for the suspect, Binyan Mohammed. “He signed a confession saying whatever they wanted to hear, which is that he worked with Jose Padilla to do the dirty bomb plot. He says that’s absolute nonsense, and he doesn’t know Jose Padilla.”
Reason #2 torture is a bad idea: Tortured people will make stuff up to stop the torture.
One suspects the Bush Administration kept Padilla locked up all this time because they didn’t want the world to know Ashcroft had been wrong. But after nearly three years of maneuvering the Bushies were staring at a possible Supreme Court showdown over whether the president can hold a U.S. citizen indefinitely without criminal charges by declaring him an enemy combatant.
And the White House does not want that showdown. Even Harriet Miers may have realized the Bushies could lose. They got a big hint in 2004 when SCOTUS told them even “enemy combatants” must have access to courts. And when Padilla’s lawyers were about to challenge his detention in front of the SCOTUS, the Bushies suddenly changed their minds about not allowing Padilla to meet with counsel.
The Justice Department had to file a motion asking the SCOTUS not to take the case by next Monday. Instead, they announced Padilla’s indictment, taking advantage of Thanksgiving to minimize media attention.
Dahlia Lithwick writes in Slate that the mishandling of Jose Padilla is proof that we’d all be better off and safer from terrorists if alleged terrorists were handled by the criminal justice system.
More than three years after the government began holding citizens in jails without charges, there is no proof that anyone in this country is safer for it. Nor is there any proof that ordinary criminal trials for Padilla, Hamdi, and the other terrorists we’ve tagged would have exposed vital intelligence information or resulted in acquittals. Yet with Hamdi sent home, and Padilla shuffled to the criminal courts, there may be no testing the addled theory that President Bush has boundless wartime powers, even after the Supreme Court has told him he doesn’t.
Had Padilla been charged and tried back in the summer of 2002, rather than touted as some Bond villainâ€”the Prince of Radiological Dispersionâ€”his case would have stood for a simple legal proposition: that if you are a terrorist, a supporter of terrorism, or a would-be terrorist, the government will hunt you down and punish you. Had the government waited, tested its facts, kept expectations low, then delivered a series of convictions of even small-time al-Qaida foot soldiers, we in this country would feel safer and we would doubtless be safer. Instead Padilla, like Hamdi, was used as fodder for big speeches. They became the justification for Bush’s position that some people are so evil that the law does not deter them, that new legal systems must be inventedâ€”new systems that bear a striking resemblance to those discredited around the time of Torquemada.
Just two months ago, Bush claimed in a speech that the U.S. had foiled ten terrorist plots since September 11. On the spot to back up the claim, White House staffers hustled to patch a list together and handed it to press. The Jose Padilla plot was item #3. Are the other nine items also fakes? Has the Bush White House actually accomplished anything to make us safer from terrorism?