Seeing Jose Padilla for the first time

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Let's all welcome Lew to Firedoglake – he'll be covering the Padilla trial for us – and he'll be on the Thom Hartmann show on Air America tomorrow! 

Seeing Jose Padilla for the first time in person — after five years of studying the man and the Government accusations against him, after writing stories and reading hundreds newspaper stories and television stories –there he was  in an actual open courtroom, accompanied, finally, with his own team of lawyers. I was struck by how much more light skinned and non-threatening  Padilla was than any of the photos or drawings released to the media that made him appear dark- skinned, menacing, and always bound, chained, so dangerous he always had to be accompanied by huge armed guards. Here was the man known world-wide as “the dirty bomber.”

Yet in his opening remarks to the jury, Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Frazier speaking on behalf of “the people of the United States of American” and the Bush Administration took more than hour and a half, and never once mentioned those two words the world knows Padilla by, the two words the Bush Administration had spent five years branding across this man’s forehead as clearly as the mark of Cain: Dirty Bomber.

Why Padilla wasn’t charged as originally announced as a so-called dirty bomber? For that we need to go back to the day of his arrest and the announcement of his arrest one full month later.

It was coming up on the one year anniversary of 9/11, and the U.S. had no single al Qaeda terrorist who could be perp-walked to the cameras. Cheney damn well knew the American public was demanding raw meat-payback and they wanted it yesterday. Turning into his office, Cheney made a mental note to tell Scooter to call Ashcroft and get the DOJ and FBI lined up.  He had finally managed to get the CIA to cough up a six page memorandum about an American citizen turned-al Qaeda operative.                       

The real facts are pretty damn close to that scenario. On May 8, 2002, just one month shy of the first anniversary of searing tragedy of when terrorists brought down the World Trade Center, bombing the Pentagon and came damn close to striking the White House, 35-year-old Jose Padilla was arrested at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport on his way back from Pakistan on charges that he “was exploring a plan to build and explode a radiological dispersion device or 'dirty bomb’ in the United States.” Now, five years later, the Federal government had made all those nuke charges vanish in the wind and allowing the Department of Justice to come up with new and even vaguer charges: Padilla: conspiracy to “murder, kidnap and main” persons overseas as part of a radical Islamist movement.

Padilla and two other Muslim men –South Florida computer programmer Adham Amin Hassoun and Detroit school administrator Kifah Wael Jayyous – are also charged with conspiracy. If convicted, the three face life in prison. It’s taken weeks of tedious questioning to find jurors who hadn’t already made up their minds. The actual trial began this week.

I’ve been following this story ever since I heard Attorney General Ashcroft’s announcement about Padilla five years ago.  From Moscow no less, Attorney General Ashcroft John Ashcroft, in mid August, 2002, uttered these preposterous words:

“I am pleased to announce today a significant step forward in the war on terrorism. We have captured a known terrorist who was exploring a plan to build and explode a radiological dispersion device, or dirty bomb, in the United States. I commend the FBI, the CIA, the Defense Department, and other federal agencies whose cooperation made this possible.”

That’s when the alarm bells went off and my shit detector started to redline. I had met people like Padilla as a cub reporter for Chicago’s City News Bureau, hanging around police stations, watching gang members being locked up. None of them resembled Enrico Fermi or Edward Teller. Second when I was living in Hyde Park/University of Chicago area, I became acquainted with someone who worked at the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists magazine. I met Leo Szilard  and  Hans Bethe and from what I could learn about Padilla, there didn’t seem to be all that much commonality of interests and intellectual capacity.                                

I started checking out Padilla — his arrest, what the police knew, what the feds were claiming. I interviewed nuclear physicists – scientists with experience in both building and evaluating the dangers from radioactivity and nuclear weapons; I spoke with specialists in constitutional laws and law professors who taught the subject. And I wound up writing a 7500 word article (pdf) (cut from 18,000) for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists magazine, Jan/Feb 2004 issue. I examined in detail the true complexities necessary to build and ignite a dirty bomb. Every nuclear scientist  questioned the government assertions about how much damage such a dirty bomb might do.  Not much, as it turns out.  Finally, I examined the dubious legal foundations upon which the government built and continued their case against Padilla. With very, very few exceptions, attorney and law school professors believed the government’s legal actions – denying him access to an attorney, refusal to present charges in an open court – were grossly unconstitutional.

Now that the case is finally coming to trial, I wondered how much has the five year pursuit of this relatively unremarkable thug Padilla cost the taxpayer so far? Adding up the fractional salary costs of the people and prisons we have two Attorney Generals, two,  four Deputy Attorney Generals and several Assistant U.S. Attorneys, the Solicitor General, Deputy Solicitors General and Assistants to the Solicitor General, three U.S. District Court Judges, two Federal Courts of Appeals Judges, law clerks by the dozen, several baker’s dozens of  FBI agents, intelligence community agents, U.S. Marshals, supervisory and support personnel for the law enforcement agents overt and covert., at least three  full-time federal public defenders, many court reporters, plus personnel benefits for all federal employees and the salaried of the benefits managers, imprisoning for five years including solitary confinement for three and a half years, under close observation twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week in a Navy brig, and what appears to be a six month trial in Miami, Florida, the cost to  the United States Government and its hapless taxpayers comes to more than $20 million. And counting.  All to justify an absurd-on-the-face-of-it contention that Padilla– a misfit Chicago Latin King gang thug –  was going to trigger a radioactive dispersal device –a “dirty bomb” when the more likely reality was that this former thug-dishwasher wanted to go down in history as a somebody.      

The government could argue that the cost was worth it if Padilla was bent on “unleashing hell” on the United States.

But there’s another cost involved in this case – one that cannot be measured in dollars and cents, the costs to a citizen’s constitutional rights under law.

Padilla isn’t any kind of poster boy for civil liberties. But then again, neither was Ernesto Miranda when he was arrested in connection with a series of sexual assaults, taken to a police station questioned by police and agreeing to write out his confession. The cops needed that confession since there were no identifying witnesses, no physical evidence. Just his confession. Off to the penitentiary he went. His attorneys contested the conviction all the way to the Supreme Court, with the result being what one has heard a million times on television cop shows: the mandatory warning all arresting authorities must convey to anyone placed under arrest: You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to speak to an attorney, and to have an attorney present during any questioning. If you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be provided for you at government expense.”

In Padilla’s case, authorities questioned him for five years without a single attorney being present, three and a half of those years in brutal, punishing solitary confinement.                              

Jose Padilla was born in Puerto Rico, moved with his mother to Brooklyn, and settled in Chicago. He quickly became a member of a nasty Southwest side Latino gang, the Latin Disciples. He was assigned the not very intimidating nick name of Pucho – Spanish for “Pudgy.” People began to take a different look at Pucho when, at age 15 he robbed and kicked a man to death. Back at the police station, when he asked why he continued to kick the man when he lay motionless on the pavement, Padilla coolly replied “I felt like it.”  He served three years in juvenile prison for that murder conviction and was released, under the law, when he was 18 –an adult. There wasn’t much around for him. He took a job as a $420-a-month-dishwasher but prison didn’t seem to have lessened his temper because he punched a cop in a dispute over a donut. Padilla must have concluded that he would be better off in a fresh location, so a year later he moved to the Ft. Lauderdale, Florida region.  Not surprisingly trouble followed. While driving his car, some motorist cut him off, disrespecting his sense of self. Padilla retaliated by firing off several pistol shots at the transgressor. Padilla had now “graduated” to an adult prison – 303 days – in the Broward County, Florida jail.

Attorney Mark Silverberg, author of “The Quartermasters of Terror” has written, “In our prison system, Islamist imams have demanded, and, for the most part, have been granted the exclusive franchise for Muslim proselytization to the forceful exclusion of moderates.”  So it wasn’t all that unusual that while in jail Jose Padilla became a Muslim, a militant one. After his release Padilla changed his name and wanted to be called Ibrahim, and later Abdullah al Muhajir. He was befriended by Adham Hassoun, an outspoken and fanatical supporter of Palestinian causes including two charities – The Benevolence International Foundation and the Global Relief Foundation – both of which had been under investigation by the FBI for years. Padilla studied Arabic for a while at the Darul Uloom Institute in Pembroke, Florida. By becoming a disciple of Hassoun, Padilla couldn’t have been more obvious as a Radical Muslim Convert; he couldn’t have been more obvious if he had painted a Red Crescent moon on his forehead. It was post 9/11 and the FBI, CIA, NSA, DOD and everyone in the “community” was aware of Padilla.               

The next twelve years took Jose Padilla on a convert’s trip through the Islamic world, traveling through the Middle East. The federal government, in an unsigned six page summary of Padilla’s travels and al Qaeda agent-training, he attended the haji in Saudi Arabia, toured Egypt and then on to Yemen, where, the document claims, Padilla met “the Recruiter” who accompanied him to “the Sponsor” who in turn escorted Padilla to Afghanistan, and then onto Pakistan, to meet with hard core al Qaeda members. They must have been much amused by this young American eager-to-please-eager-to learn, terrorist wanna-be who fervently, as the government alleges, signed for membership in al Qaeda on the dotted line, attended an al Qaeda training camp and became familiar and weapons-proficient  with the Kalashnikov, AK-47, G-3, M-16, Uzi and submachine guns, as well as spy-sophisticated, absorbing new techniques in communications, camouflage, clandestine surveillance, explosives (C-4,) dynamite, mines. While traveling with “the Sponsor,” Padilla was meeting a whole range of people the United States Government had an interest in: Abu Zubaydah, al Qaeda military commander Abu Hafs al Masri, aka Mohammed Atef. There were discussions about dirty bombs and blowing up high rise apartment buildings by exploding stoves, according to the anonymous document, perhaps even a visit to a web site that described How to Build a Dirty Bomb. Google offers 1,350,000 links. According to the document even some of the al Qaeda honchos had trouble believing Padilla was capable of doing what he claimed he could. If their leaders of the terrorist movement had problems with believing Padilla, it seems to be the United States intelligence community buying into that story. They knew that it was just downright foolish to believe Padilla as a newly packaged Islamic combination of Rambo and Robert Oppenheimer.

Had they found such a serious terrorist’s threat, just in time to save thousands of Americans from annihilation? Or had they just grabbed the closest low hanging fruit that had already dropped to the ground and called it a dirty bomber?

(With Rachel M. Koch)

Lew can be reached at lew dot koch at gmail dot com. 

(Still from Exhibit E, Docket No. 695, Filed December 1st, 2006 – USA et al vs. Hassoun et al, U.S. District Court, Southern District of Florida;)

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