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.