“We will probably never know if [José] Padilla was a would-be terrorist,” declared the New York Times in a March editorial. Five months on, the Times might consider issuing a retraction. In a ruling that powerfully bolsters the Bush administration’s prosecution of the war on terror, Padilla was yesterday convicted on terrorism-conspiracy charges in a Miami criminal trial.
First let's review the background. A Brooklyn-born American of Puerto Rican origin, Padilla had a troubling rap sheet long before he came to the attention of federal authorities. After moving to Chicago as a boy, he joined a Puerto Rican street-gang called the Maniac Latin Disciples. Less law abiding than their name may indicate, the gang led Padilla into trouble. Before the age of 18, he was arrested and convicted of murder.
It would get worse. Sent to prison in Florida, Padilla became a convert to Islam, later adopting the name Abu Abdullah al-Muhajir. Upon his release, the violent felon found a receptive audience for his fervor among a group of Islamic radicals, who encouraged him to travel to the Middle East. Abroad Padilla came into contact with senior al-Qaeda leaders, receiving instructions to travel to training camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan. When he returned to the United States in 2002, Padilla was arrested at Chicago's O'Hare Airport on suspicion of planning to detonate a radiological “dirty bomb,” inspiring the name by which he has been known ever since: the dirty bomber. His subsequent detention, initially as an enemy combatant in military custody and then as civilian, has triggered a contentious debate on the merits of the Bush administration’s detention policies and the conduct of the war on terror more broadly.
Yesterday’s guilty verdict by no means settles the debate. But it decisively lays to rest one of the more elaborate myths of the Bush administration’s foes: that Padilla was the blameless victim of a “lawless” U.S. government. Specifically, Padilla has now been convicted of taking part in a conspiracy to murder, kidnap and maim people in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Bosnia, among other countries, in the years between 1993 to 2001. In essence, the jury found that Padilla, along with his co-defendants Adham Hassoun and Kifan, had actively worked to support terrorist jihad overseas. Guilty on all counts, Padilla now faces a sentence of life imprisonment. It turns out that, contrary to the assurances of the New York Times, he was a “would-be terrorist” after all.
The trial’s outcome was hardly a foregone conclusion. Repeatedly, defense attorneys for Padilla sought to turn the legal proceedings in Miami into a political trial of the U.S. government. Early on, they claimed that Padilla was “tortured” following his arrest in May of 2002, making him mentally incompetent to stand trial. Allegedly, Padilla’s treatment at the hands of U.S. authorities had been so brutal as to turn him insane.
However dubious, the charge of “torture” found resonance among the more ideologically inflexible civil-liberties groups, where the notion that the U.S. government brutally mistreats detainees enjoys the status of faith. Media outlets did their part to popularize the claim. Britain’s Guardian, in the course of alleging “routine and systematic torture” by the United States, ventured that Padilla “appears to have been lobotomized: not medically, but socially.” If this did not exactly clarify matters, that was irrelevant. The upshot was that Padilla was innocent, the Bush administration guilty.
More skeptical was U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke. After hearing from a psychiatrist, she found Padilla fully fit for trial. Judge Cooke did not rule on the allegations of torture, but it is doubtful that these would have withstood investigation. It is true that Padilla was subjected to coercive interrogation, including isolation, hooding (literally, being covered with a hood), sleep deprivation, and being placed in stressful positions. But such techniques hardly qualify as torture and few without lifetime membership in the ACLU would consider them beyond the pale.
Having failed to derail the trial, the defense changed tack. Padilla, they now argued, was not a “member of any support cell because there wasn't one.” Far from a terrorist operative, they insisted, he was a pious seeker of truth who had traveled to the Middle East at the prompting of his Islamic faith. In closing arguments, Padilla’s attorney made a point of claiming that his client had “an intent to study, not an intent to murder.”
The jury was unconvinced, and with good reason. For telephone wiretaps introduced in the trial painted a very different -- and far darker -- portrait of Padilla’s activities during the 1990s. For instance, an April 2000 conversation has Padilla referring to Yemen --- then as now the home of top al-Qaeda leaders, including contacts of Osama bin Laden -- where he wanted to travel and to which end he was seeking a “recommendation to connect with the good brothers, with the right faith.” Which “brothers” might these have been? An answer is suggested in a July 2000 conversation between Adham Hassoun and another recruit, Mohamed Hesham Youssef, which features the latter revealing that Padilla “is supposed to be at Osama’s” and that Padilla had “entered into the area of Osama.”
Defense attorneys, to be sure, tried to assure the jury that the Osama in question was not the al-Qaeda chieftain. If they didn’t succeed it may be because the prosecution corroborated the telephone intercepts with a mujahedeen membership form bearing Padilla’s fingerprints that he allegedly filled out in 2000 while attending an al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan. In their indictment, prosecutors charged that Padilla had been “recruited by the North American support cell to participate in violent jihad and traveled overseas for that purpose.” Going by yesterday’s ruling, the jury agreed.
Deplored though it is in certain political quarters, the ruling vindicates the wisdom of the Bush administration’s counterterrorism strategy. Since his 2002 arrest, the administration maintained that Padilla had ties to terrorism that required his continued detention. In that judgment it has been amply confirmed.
But don’t expect the administration to get any credit for its steadfast support, in the teeth of often reckless opposition, of wiretapping terrorist suspects. Nor will it win plaudits for its detention policies. Never mind that if Padilla had been released, as many demanded, he would have never been brought to justice.
Brace yourself instead for much teeth-gnashing over the fact that Padilla was not convicted of the original charge for which he was arrested: plotting an attack with a dirty bomb. As a technical matter, that’s true. It is also deeply misleading. The administration has argued, plausibly, that in order to bring charges against Padilla on those grounds it would have had to release sensitive intelligence information, thereby compromising the broader counterterrorism effort. In addition, because the military, properly, does not follow the procedure of civilian courts -- Padilla was subject to coercive interrogations and was not given a lawyer -- much of its evidence would have been inadmissible at trial. Seen in that light, the reluctance to try Padilla on the bigger charge seems eminently defensible.
That’s not to say that there was no evidence connecting Padilla to the plot. On the contrary, Abu Zubaydah, a close confidante of bin Laden, has previously told American interrogators that in 2001 Padilla had approached him and other al-Qaeda leaders with a crude plan to explode a nuclear bomb in the U.S. Something to remember the next time someone sneers at the idea of Padilla as the dirty bomber.
Equally unconvincing is the complaint of hypocrisy. By this logic, the fact that the administration initially classified Padilla as an enemy combatant before consenting to a civilian trial is evidence of its tyrannical contempt for civil liberties. But as Benjamin Wittes, a fellow at the center-Left Brookings Institution and a critic of the Bush administration, has noted, designating Padilla as an enemy combatant was not so much an attempt to “aggrandize executive power but to prevent his release and to create a detention status under which agents could interrogate him and find out what he knew.” Against the backdrop of a broader war against Islamic terror, that decision, too, seems perfectly justified.
In his book Against All Enemies, Clinton counter-terrorism adviser Richard Clarke spoke for many on the Left when he blusteringly proclaimed that the case of José Padilla shook the “confidence of many Americans in the government’s ability to safeguard our rights.” In truth, the public has always been more comfortable with the Bush administration’s assertive approach than partisans like Clarke care to admit. It's safe to say that the Padilla verdict is unlikely to win any converts to Clarke‘s side.