am obligated as a journalist to use the word "alleged"
when writing about Jose Padilla, the former Chicago
gangbanger the government says turned terrorist.
He allegedly received terrorist training in Afghanistan.
He returned to the United States as an alleged
al Qaeda operative. He allegedly planned to detonate
a dirty bomb and also allegedly hoped to use natural
gas to bring down some apartment buildings in
New York or another city. There, I have done my
government, on the other hand, is not similarly
constrained. Although it has locked up Padilla
for two years, although for a long time he was
held in isolation and not allowed to see a lawyer
or anyone else, he has never been charged with
a crime or found guilty in a court of law. The
worst I can do is libel the man. The government,
though, has cast him into the contemporary version
of a dungeon.
is not to say that Padilla is innocent. The government
not only maintains he is a dangerous terrorist
but now says he has confessed to much of the above
-- and, if it matters any, I believe the feds.
But while I accept the government's case, I cannot
accept the insistence that it can, when it so
chooses, keep a U.S. citizen -- and Padilla is
one -- detained for as long as it sees fit. If
the man committed a crime, then try him. It's
the American way.
Bush administration takes the position that it
can hold Padilla, and others it designates as
enemy combatants, for as long as it wants, where
it wants and, within reason, how it wants. Torture
and summary execution are out of the question,
the government conceded in April when it argued
its case before the Supreme Court -- but not what
could amount to life in prison without trial.
In fact, until March, Padilla was not even able
to see a lawyer.
lawyer, it turns out, is precisely what the government
wanted to avoid. In a news conference this week,
James B. Comey Jr., Attorney General John Ashcroft's
deputy, outlined a bit more of the case against
Padilla and explained why he had been held in
isolation and denied counsel for so long. "He
would very likely have followed his lawyer's advice
and said nothing, which would have been his constitutional
right. He would likely have ended up a free man,
with our only hope being to try to follow him
24 hours a day, seven days a week and hope --
pray, really -- that we didn't lose him."
is an astounding statement. First, the conjecture
that Padilla would have been freed suggests that
the government's case is something short of open-and-shut.
Second, as we all know from watching "Law and
Order," the invariable entry of a lawyer into
the interrogation room always complicates the
case, often ending the questioning right there
and then. Yet, somehow, prosecutors make their
case and the bad guys go to jail. Third, this
mention of a "constitutional right" as something
akin to a pesky regulation that should be nimbly
sidestepped is downright troubling. The Constitution
is our basic law. It both establishes the federal
government and limits its authority. As the song
says about love and marriage, you can't have one
without the other.
repeat, I have no evidence to dispute what the
feds say about Padilla. But this is the same government
that missed repeated warnings that something like
the horrors of Sept. 11 was on the way, that was
damned sure Iraq was loaded with weapons of mass
destruction, that recently detained a Portland,
Ore., lawyer on terrorism-related charges because
it got the fingerprints wrong, that yelled espionage
and treason about a military chaplain later charged
with nothing more than having an extramarital
affair, that . . . well, you get the picture.
There's a reason so many men have walked off death
row. Government is not infallible and this government,
in particular, is hardly an exception.
was nearby when the twin towers went down. Hardly
a day goes by that I do not think about it. I
fear terrorists -- in that they have succeeded.
But I also fear a government that takes it upon
itself to deprive a citizen -- any citizen --
of his basic rights. That holds for Timothy McVeigh
(also a terrorist, no?) or a common street criminal
and even an alleged al Qaeda associate like Jose
Padilla. It's not just his rights that have been
suspended. It's our own.
Posted: June 8, 2004