Padilla indicted: was “dirty bomb” a dirty lie?

Well, after three years in Pentagon custody, José Padilla has finally been indicted. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, announcing the indictment, tried to be as lurid as possible, charging that Padilla was part of a “North American support cell” to send “money, physical assets and new recruits” overseas to engage in acts of terrorism, and that he had traveled abroad himself to become “a violent jihadist.” (NYT, Nov. 22) But several paragraphs down in the NY Times’ coverage we get the straight dope:

The indictment, which was returned by a federal grand jury in Miami, said that Mr. Padilla had plotted with four co-defendants in South Florida and elsewhere from October 1993 to the fall of 2001 to promote terrorist activities overseas.

Often speaking over the telephone in code, the indictment said, the defendants talked of getting money “to the soccer team in Chechnya or Bosnia,” of “trade in Somalia,” of going on a picnic in Egypt “God willing” and getting “green goods” to Lebanon, where they were “needed urgently,” and of assisting “tourism” in Kosovo. The indictment says they traveled overseas to foster terrorism and sometimes funneled money to terrorists under the guise of charitable donations.

Do you catch the key words here? “Overseas.” “Chechnya.” “Bosnia.” “Somalia.” “Egypt.” “Kosovo.” Still deeper in the story, the Times reminds us how far all this is from the specter of a domestic “dirty bomb” attack that was raised upon Padilla’s arrest—and implicitly used to justify holding him incommunicado and without charge in a Naval brig for three years:

The formal charges against Mr. Padilla are the latest development in a case that has been controversial from its very beginning, when he was arrested in 2002 at Chicago’s O’Hare airport on his return from Pakistan, and that promises to remain controversial.

The attorney general at the time, John Ashcroft, announced with considerable fanfare that Mr. Padilla, a former Chicago gang member, had hoped to set off a radiological “dirty bomb” and carry out attacks against hotels and apartment buildings in the United States.

A neat little bait-and-switch, eh? Yet most media outlets (e.g. ABC) used headlines like “Dirty Bomb Suspect Padilla Indicted.” Is he still a “dirty bomb suspect”? Was he ever? (Four others were also named in the indictment—nobody we’ve ever heard of before.)

It seems clear the administration decided to indict Padilla precisely to avoid a legal challenge to its policy of holding “enemy combatants” without charge. Writes the Washington Post today:

The indictment of Jose Padilla came days before the Bush administration was due to respond to his appeal to the Supreme Court of his lengthy detention, prompting his lawyers to suggest that the government is trying to avoid another potentially losing confrontation in the high court over its anti-terror detention policies.

Indeed, as the indictment was announced, administration lawyers notified Padilla’s legal team that they now regard his Supreme Court challenge as moot, not requiring any Supreme Court intervention.

See our last post on the Padilla case.

  1. NY Times on bait and switch
    Interesting to note that the New York Times editorial today remarks specifically about the ‘bait and switch’ aspect. Overused as the phrase is, Gonzales’ refusal to even comment on the previous allegations is ‘Orwellian’.

    Um, About That Dirty Bomb?

    November 23, 2005

    Almost three and a half years ago, the Bush administration announced that it had arrested a Chicago-born man named Jose Padilla while he was entering the United States to explode a “dirty bomb” and blow up apartment buildings. The attorney general, John Ashcroft, said Mr. Padilla was a Qaeda-trained terrorist so dangerous that he was being tossed into a Navy brig and the key was being thrown away.

    The administration hotly defended its right to hold Mr. Padilla without legal process because he was declared an unlawful enemy combatant, one of the new powers that President Bush granted himself after 9/11. The administration fought the case up to the Supreme Court. Mr. Padilla’s plot was thwarted, the Justice Department claimed, only because of the government’s ability to hold suspected terrorists in secretive prisons where they were sweated, to put it mildly, for information. The “dirty bomb” plot supposedly was divulged by a top Qaeda member who had been interrogated 100 times at one such location.

    Never mind. As of yesterday, Mr. Padilla stopped being an unlawful combatant, and the new attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, refused even to talk about that issue. Mr. Padilla is not going to be charged with planning to explode bombs, dirty or otherwise, in the United States. Just in time for the administration to prod Congress on extending the Patriot Act and to avoid having to argue the case before the Supreme Court, Mr. Padilla was charged with aiding terrorists in other countries and will be turned over to civilian authorities.

    Mr. Padilla was added late in the game, and in a minor role, to a continuing case against four other men. He faces serious charges that carry a possible life sentence, but they do nothing to clear up the enormous legal questions created by this case, nor do they have the remotest connection with the original accusations.

    The Padilla case was supposed to be an example of why the administration needs to suspend prisoners’ rights when it comes to the war on terror. It turned out to be the opposite. If Mr. Padilla was seriously planning a “dirty bomb” attack, he can never be held accountable for it in court because the illegal conditions under which he has been held will make it impossible to do that. If he was only an inept fellow traveler in the terrorist community, he is excellent proof that the government is fallible and needs the normal checks of the judicial system. And, of course, if he is innocent, he was the victim of a terrible injustice.

    The same is true of the hundreds of other men held at Guantánamo Bay and in the C.I.A.’s secret prisons. This is hardly what Americans have had in mind hearing Mr. Bush’s constant assurances since Sept. 11, 2001, that he will bring terrorists to justice.

    1. Good for the Times
      Credit where credit is due. Good for them for refusing to let the inconsistency go down the Memory Hole. This makes me feel like Scooter Libby’s indictment did (and the fact that the New York State Department of Housing Conservation and Development has thus far refused to grant my landord the big rent hike he is seeking)–like maybe there’s a faint glimmer of hope after all. Just maybe.