Civil Liberties

The Disappearing Dirty Bomber

Jose Padilla's trial was not so swift, and neither was he.


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.

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  1. It says a lot about the faculty of Harvard Law School that they turned out en masse in support of Lewis Libby, a man afforded every possible advantage in a criminal trial, and have remained mute and silent over the treatment of Jose Padilla.

  2. “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.”

    That.. is.. awesome.

  3. “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.”

    Can you?

  4. Marcvs–

    I showed that to my physics colleague down the hall. He’s still laughing.

  5. Am I the only one who doesn’t understand how receiving training from a terrorist group constitutes “providing material support” for terrorists? If that’s our government’s position, then I think that every cadet who washes out of West Point and gets billed for the cost of the education the government provided him should turn around and say, “Bullshit. You weren’t doing me any favors; rather, *I* was providing material support to *you*.”

    Or maybe I missed the part in the indictment where it alleges that Padilla paid tuition to the al-Qaeda International School of Terrorism.

  6. It is interesting to contrast Padilla’s treatment with that of two terrorists in Mexico.

    On October 10, 2001, CNN briefly mentioned a foiled terrorist bomb plot in the Mexican Parliament building. They promised to bring any further developments of this story to their viewers, but the incident was never heard of again in America. But the story appeared in bold headlines on the front page of the major Mexican newspapers and was also posted on the official website of the Mexican Justice Department. Two terror suspects were apprehended in the Mexican Chamber of Deputies. They had in their possession a high powered gun, nine hand grenades, and C-4 plastic explosives (great stuff for demolishing buildings) Within days, this story not only disappeared from the Mexican press, but two men were quietly released and deported, after receiving heavy pressure from Israel. The two terrorists were Salvador Gerson Sunke and Sar ben Zui. Sunke was a Mexican jew and Zui was a colonel with the MOSSAD, Israel Intel. They had forged Pakistani Passports in their possession, in the hopes of blowing up the place, and blaming it on hapless Muslims.

    Had the terrorist actually been Muslims rather than Jews, I am sure CNN would have made it their # 1 story, and Bush would no doubt have spoken about “solidarity” with our nearest neighbor in the “war against terror.”

  7. But what if you had a really big bucket?

  8. I think the fact that Douglas Gray is telling this story proves that he’s an anti-Semite.

  9. But you jokers are the same sort who belief in suit case nukes. How many buckets is that? Hint: a bunch. And, there isn’t any plutonium involved. Ha!

  10. Seamus:

    Douglas Grey is an anti-Semite if he is lying. Otherwise he is a whistle-blower and you are a censoring fascist.

  11. It is interesting to contrast Padilla’s treatment with that of two terrorists in Mexico.

    I think the fact that Douglas Gray is telling this story proves that he’s an anti-Semite.

    Maybe not proves, but that he’s repeating a story that looks to only exist on Truther blogs and websites citing each other, with everyone repeating it going, “OMG, Jews out to get us!” certainly makes it a possibility.

  12. John Rancho:

    Actually, I was being sarcastic. But the fact that, as Eric the .5b points out, the only sites pulled up by a Google search of the names “Salvador Gerson Sunke” and “Sar ben Zui” seem indeed to be truther sites does give me pause.

  13. Let me see if I have this right: Jose Padilla went overseas to join and be trained by the terrorist organization called al-Qaeda, did or did not take part in terrorist activities, returned to America with the hope of doing something awful to Americans, was arrested by federal authorities as an enemy of America, was held for a long time as an illegal enemy combatant, and was finally charged with and convicted of lending support to a terrorist organization. I think I understand that. But Jacob Sullum seems convinced that this series of events demonstrates that the federal authorities are nefarious idiots, have committed crimes of some sort, never intended to be fair to Mr. Padilla, and may be in league with forces trying to subject the world to injustice. I must assume he believed that the jurors who convicted Padilla were also idiots-or had a gun pointed at them. I don’t believe that. Oh, but what about the innuendo? Well, innuendo is not evidence except in Mr. Sullum’s world.

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