People who knew Jose Padilla before he was sent to a Navy brig in 2002 say he emerged a different man after three and a half years of isolation and interrogation. Those who observed him only from a distance also noticed a change: The "dirty bomber" whose capture then-Attorney General John Ashcroft had announced on live TV morphed into yet another junior jihadist who went to Afghanistan for arms training but never came close to carrying out an attack.

Padilla's recent conviction on terrorism-related charges highlights the contrast between the murderous mastermind portrayed by the Bush administration and the less impressive reality. It casts further doubt on President Bush's decision to put Padilla, a U.S. citizen arrested on U.S. soil, in military custody, a move supposedly justified by his intelligence value and the impossibility of successfully prosecuting him in a civilian court.

"We have disrupted an unfolding terrorist plot to attack the United States by exploding a radioactive ‘dirty bomb,'" Ashcroft declared when he revealed Padilla's arrest. He explained that a dirty bomb "not only kills victims in the immediate vicinity but also spreads radioactive material that is highly toxic to humans and can cause mass death and injury." CNN reported that "U.S. officials said Washington was the probable target."

Although Padilla had been arrested at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport more than a month before, Ashcroft heightened the drama by interrupting a visit to Moscow for a press conference via satellite. The next day, then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz confessed, "I don't think there was actually a plot beyond some fairly loose talk... It's not as though this was a plan that was on the verge of being executed... He was still in the early stages."

How early? According to a 2006 New York Times story, Al Qaeda personnel director Abu Zubaydah, the government's main source of information about the bomb plot, "dismissed Mr. Padilla as a maladroit extremist whose hope to construct a dirty bomb, using conventional explosives to disperse radioactive materials, was far-fetched. He told his questioners that Mr. Padilla was ignorant on the subject of nuclear physics and believed he could separate plutonium from nuclear material by rapidly swinging over his head a bucket filled with fissionable material."

The Defense Department says Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, another Al Qaeda leader who was later captured, also "was very skeptical." Padilla reportedly told U.S. interrogators the dirty bomb talk was a ruse to avoid being sent to fight American forces in Afghanistan.

Because they were coercively obtained, such statements were not admissible at Padilla's trial, but it hardly would have mattered if they were. Based on his training in Afghanistan and his connection to two codefendants accused of sending money to terrorist groups, a federal jury convicted Padilla of two conspiracy charges, plus a charge of providing "material support" to terrorists.

The evidence on which the prosecution based its case, including secretly recorded telephone conversations and a "mujahedeen data form" with Padilla's fingerprints on it, was available at the time of his arrest. Because of the way prosecutors framed the charges, Padilla could be imprisoned for life. Defendants in other cases who admitted undergoing terrorist training have received sentences ranging from seven to 15 years.

It seems clear the government could have tried and convicted Padilla back in 2002, which leaves intelligence gathering as the remaining excuse for his 43 months of legal limbo. Maybe Padilla provided valuable information, although his junior position in Al Qaeda (assuming he even could be considered a member) and the disdain of the organization's leaders suggest otherwise.

Does the possibility of gleaning information about terrorism justify stripping a U.S. citizen of his constitutional rights and locking him up indefinitely without charge, based on nothing more than one man's order? It was hardly a coincidence that President Bush transferred Padilla back to civilian custody for his long-delayed trial just as the Supreme Court was poised to consider that question.

© Copyright 2007 by Creators Syndicate Inc.