In a December 10th Sunday Times of London article titled “Jose, Victim of a Sinister New America,” Andrew Sullivan charges that the United States has become a nation where “the constitution no longer applies,” and where “almost eight centuries since the Magna Carta, Americans are at the mercy of a new king [President Bush], who can jail without charges and torture at will.” The protagonist in Sullivan’s woeful tale of injustice is 36-year-old Jose Padilla, a Brooklyn-born Muslim convert who was arrested in May 2002 and was thereafter detained by the U.S. government for three-and-a-half years as an “enemy combatant” who aspired to contribute to the worldwide Islamic jihad by killing large numbers of Americans. Sullivan’s chief complaint is that Padilla was denied the protection of “[t]he basic principle of … habeas corpus — the notion that the government cannot detain a citizen without charging him with crimes that can be brought before a court and a jury of his peers.”
To give his readers some background, Sullivan explains that Padilla “was a troubled youth, joining a street gang when [his] family moved to Chicago, and was once jailed for aggravated assault.” This description of Padilla’s past is notable not for what it tells us (i.e., almost nothing), but rather for what it does not tell us. Here’s the full story: In his early teens, Padilla joined a mostly Puerto Rican gang called the Latin Disciples. When he was 14, he and several friends assaulted and robbed three men. When one of the victims attempted to chase down the attackers, one of Padilla’s accomplices stabbed that victim in the stomach. Padilla then helped the knife-wielder throw the bleeding man to the ground, at which point Padilla kicked him in the head. The pair stole cash from the victim's pockets and left him in an alley, where he subsequently died. Padilla was convicted of aggravated battery and armed robbery and was placed in juvenile detention until May 1988, a few months shy of his eighteenth birthday.
But of course, Jose Padilla is by no means the only person ever to have engaged in such youthful indiscretions as abetting manslaughter. What really matters is that such people eventually get their acts together and live good lives as adults, right? Sullivan tells us: “After serving his sentence, he [Padilla] converted to Islam and professed non-violence.” Alas, however, the “nonviolent” Padilla went on to compile a rap sheet of adult crimes as well — offenses ranging from assault to unlawful weapons possession to attempted theft. Court documents show that in most of those instances, he tried to punch, kick, and slash the police officers trying to apprehend him. In 1991 he was arrested in Broward County, Florida and charged with aggravated assault for a road rage incident where he fired his gun from a car; in 1992 he was convicted of aggravated assault. In 1997 his driver’s license was suspended indefinitely for speeding.
Sullivan further informs us that this new, improved, “non-violent” version of Jose Padilla chose to devote some of his time and energy to charity work. “He went to the Masjid Al-Iman mosque in Fort Lauderdale, Florida,” writes Sullivan, “and worked for a charity suspected of Islamist terror ties.”
Suspected of Islamist terror ties? Sullivan’s insertion of that verb leads readers, naturally, to wonder whether such suspicions were really warranted, or whether they were perhaps nothing more than the unfounded imaginings of anti-Muslim bigots. As it turns out, the charity to which the allegedly maligned Jose Padilla chose to lend his services was the Benevolence International Foundation (BIF), which was formed in 1992 by the merging of two already existing organizations — one which raised funds for the Afghan mujahedeen who were battling the Russian military in the Middle East, and another which was founded by Osama bin Laden’s brother-in-law Mohammed Jamal Khalifa — to finance both the newly emerging al Qaeda network and the Abu Sayyaf Islamic rebels in the Philippines. BIF opened an office in Florida in 1993, then moved to Chicago in order to be closer to terrorist fronts that Hamas had established in the United States. Once in Chicago, the group actively sought donations from Muslim Americans and other sources in order to fund terrorist operations in Chechnya and the Philippines.
With the passage of the Patriot Act, the U.S. government moved to close down BIF after determining, from evidence uncovered at BIF offices in Bosnia, that the funds it raised were being sent to al Qaeda for the purpose of buying weapons and transporting terrorists all over the world. In November 2002, the U.S. Treasury Department formally classified BIF as a funder of terrorism. Incidentally, Mr. Khalifa — who co-founded Jose Padilla’s charity of choice — was a man whose varied interests extended well beyond such pursuits as supporting al Qaeda’s weapons-procurement efforts: He also helped finance Operation Bojinka, a foiled 1995 plot that would have simultaneously detonated bombs aboard eleven U.S.-bound airliners, blowing them up almost simultaneously in mid-flight over the Pacific Ocean and the South China Sea.
Apart from his charity work, it seems that Padilla was also an avid traveler: “He visited Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq,” writes Sullivan. “Returning to Chicago on May 8, 2002, Padilla was arrested and held under a warrant related to the 9/11 attacks.” This account makes Padilla seem like a tourist who was taken into custody — for no definably good reason — after returning from a sightseeing excursion in the Middle East. Perhaps Mr. Sullivan’s readers would be interested to learn that Padilla’s 1998 move to Egypt occurred when he suddenly left his American wife and moved to a Cairo suburb (some accounts say he went to teach English, others say he went to learn Arabic), and took the name Abdullah al-Muhajir. (Padilla later told investigators that his travels had been sponsored by "friends" interested in his education.) Unsatisfied by the secular, state-controlled brand of Islam taught in mainstream Egyptian schools, he soon moved to Pakistan where he studied a militant form of Islam and married the widow of a jihadist. His American wife learned of her husband’s most recent betrothal through an Egyptian-American friend.
As for Padilla’s “visit” to Afghanistan, it seems that sightseeing was not a high-priority item on his itinerary. Instead, he went to the city of Kandahar to fill out a “Mujahideen Identification Form/New Applicant Form” which enrolled him in the al Qaeda-affiliated al Farouq training camp. Padilla’s application (which was later found by the FBI) is dated July 24, 2000 and bears his alias, Abu Abdullah al-Muhajir, as well as his birth date — October 18, 1970. While attending this camp for training in the use of weapons and explosives in the fall of 2000, Padilla was first introduced to al Qaeda military commander Mohammed Atef, with whom he would subsequently have several additional meetings. In July or August 2001, Atef sent Padilla and a designated accomplice to be trained in the art of blowing up buildings — a skill Atef hoped Padilla could eventually put to use in the United States. The mission was called off, however, when the two trainees found it impossible to work together amicably.
After 9/11, Padilla spent some time living with Atef in the house where the latter was eventually killed by a U.S. air strike in November 2001. Seeking to avoid further danger, Padilla decided, as Sullivan puts it, to “visit” Pakistan, where he became acquainted with Osama bin Laden’s deputy Abu Zubaydah. Padilla approached Zubaydah with an idea that dovetailed nicely with his BIF charity work: He wanted to follow Internet instructions for creating a nuclear bomb, and then detonate it somewhere in the United States. Skeptical about Padilla’s ability to carry out such an attack, Zubaydah suggested that wrapping explosives in uranium (to create a radiological “dirty bomb”) might be more feasible.
In any event, he sent Padilla to Pakistan to discuss the various possibilities with 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. As it turned out, Mohammed deemed the original plan to blow up American apartment buildings the most feasible option of all. He instructed Padilla and an accomplice to locate (via an Internet search) twenty high-rise buildings (preferably in New York, Florida, or Washington, DC) which had natural gas supplied to the apartments, and to rent two units in each building. The men were then to seal all openings in their rented apartments, turn on the gas, and set timers to detonate the apartments simultaneously at a later time. Mohammed paid each of the two men $20,000 for this operation and sent them on their way.
Jose Padilla left Pakistan on April 5, 2002, spent a month in Egypt, and then traveled to the U.S. to carry out his mission. When he arrived at Chicago O’Hare Airport on May 8, 2002, he was immediately interviewed and arrested by FBI agents, who were first tipped to Padilla's al Qaeda connection by Abu Zubaydah, who had been captured in Pakistan and delivered to American custody in March 2002. In June 2004 the Justice Department released a declassified document showing Padilla’s plans and al Qaeda connections in detail. It should be noted that the information therein comes not only from Padilla’s own admissions, but also from a number of additional al Qaeda detainees who independently confirmed the details that Padilla gave, particularly about the plots to detonate a “dirty bomb” and to blow up apartment buildings.
Andrew Sullivan claims that Padilla’s admissions vis-a-vis the foregoing terror plots were coerced by the use of torture, citing the allegations of Padilla’s attorney, who says that his client was “put in stress positions for hours at a time”; was “shackled and manacled for hours in his cell”; was exposed to “noxious fumes … causing his eyes and nose to run”; was forced to endure “extremely cold” temperatures in his cell “for long stretches of time”; was “threatened with being cut with a knife and having alcohol poured on the wounds”; was “threatened with imminent execution”; was “hooded and forced to stand in stress positions for long periods”; was “forced to endure exceedingly long interrogation sessions, without adequate sleep, wherein he would be confronted with false information, scenarios and documents to further disorientate him”; and was forced “to endure multiple interrogators who would scream, shake and otherwise assault [him].” “Mr. Padilla was denied even the smallest and most personal shreds of human dignity,” lamented the attorney, “by being deprived of showering for weeks at a time, yet having to endure forced grooming at the whim of his captors.” Sullivan further cites the assertion, made by someone who had recently visited Padilla, that the prisoner was exhibiting physical manifestations of stress (such as facial tics) that were “particularly poignant.”
American authorities emphatically deny the allegations that Padilla was tortured. Those allegations, however, raise a larger issue: Exactly how do Padilla’s advocates believe U.S. interrogators should have sought to extract information from him? Presumably we are to conclude that the interrogators ought to have seated him in a soft, comfortable chair and implored him in a most gentlemanly fashion to reveal — for the good of humanity — everything he knew about past and present terror plots.
Another of Sullivan’s complaints is this: “The charges [the Justice Department] brought in November 2005 included no mention of any dirty bomb, no link to Al-Qaeda, and no charge of conspiracy to commit acts of terror in America.” The actual charges against Padilla included “conspiracy to murder, kidnap and maim persons in a foreign country ... for the purpose of opposing existing governments and civilian factions and establishing Islamic states under Sharia (Islamic law), and material support for terrorism.” As Patrick Devenny of the Center for Security Policy has explained, the reason the indictment did not address Padilla’s plans to attack the United States is this: “Were the Justice Department to seek criminal charges stemming from Padilla’s activities in Afghanistan and elsewhere, they would be required to call mass murderers such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammad [i.e., Khalid Shaikh Mohammed] and Abu Zubaydah, who are still valuable sources of information in the War on Terror, to the witness stand. This would undoubtedly lead to calls for those two men — along with other al-Qaeda leaders — to be afforded rights reserved for conventional criminal suspects, an unacceptable surrender of mandated war powers.”
Finally, Sullivan laments that “Padilla, an American citizen, was detained without being charged for 3½ years. It was nearly two years before he had access to a lawyer.” The reason for this is neither sinister nor mysterious. Padilla was aligned with an organization, al Qaeda, that has formally declared war on the United States. Not illogically, the U.S. considered the Padilla case a military rather than a law-enforcement matter, which is why the government maintained that he could be held at length as an “enemy combatant” and interrogated without formal charges and without access to a lawyer. Designated “enemy combatants” are entitled to neither the rights of soldiers under the laws of war, nor the civil rights of defendants in the criminal-justice system.
Then in March 2005, a federal judge in South Carolina District Court ruled in the opposite direction, calling the Padilla case a “law enforcement matter, not a military matter,” and declaring that the U.S. government could not continue to hold him without formally charging him with a crime. The government then asked the Supreme Court to hear the case directly, but in June the Court announced that it was refusing the request. Three months thereafter, a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the District Court decision and ruled that President Bush did in fact have the authority to detain Padilla without charges. Stated the Court of Appeals: “The Congress of the United States, in the Authorization for Use of Military Force Joint Resolution, provided the President all powers necessary and appropriate to protect American citizens from terrorist acts by those who attacked the United States on September 11, 2001. … Those powers include the power to detain identified and committed enemies such as Padilla, who associated with al Qaeda and the Taliban regime … entered the United States for the avowed purpose of further prosecuting that way by attacking American citizens and targets on our own soil …” On October 25, Padilla’s attorneys asked the Supreme Court to limit the government's power to hold their client and other U.S. terror suspects indefinitely and without charges. The Bush administration was given a November 28 deadline for filing arguments, and on November 22 the government formally indicted Padilla on the aforementioned “material support of terrorism charges.”
This sequence of events is hardly evidence that Sullivan was even remotely justified in calling America a nation where “the constitution no longer applies,” and where the people “are at the mercy of a new king who can jail without charges and torture at will.” In point of fact, nothing could be farther from the truth.
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