Padilla gets day in court, but verdict on Bush is in

Published May 20, 2007

Finally, Jose Padilla has his day in court. The American who became the face of Fifth Column terrorism, accused with great fanfare by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft of being part of a plot to detonate a radiological or "dirty bomb" in the United States, is at last receiving his birthright - a trial. It only took five years.

As anyone paying attention knows by now, the Justice Department has not included the incendiary charge of dirty bomber in Padilla's indictment. He has not been accused of attempting to harm anyone in the United States. Instead, Padilla is alleged to have been part of a North American support cell for a group of radical Islamic jihadists that ostensibly underwrote and provided recruits for terrorist activities in Kosovo, Chechnya and Somalia. Padilla is accused of training as a mujahedeen fighter at an al-Qaida camp in Afghanistan. He and two co-defendants are being tried for conspiring to murder, kidnap and maim people overseas, as well as some lesser charges.

Reading through the indictment makes it clear why Miami-based U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke, whom President Bush appointed to the federal courts in 2003, told the government last July that its case was "light on facts." It relies extensively on checks sent to Islamic charities on which "Chechnya" and "Kosovo" are written in the memo line, and what the government says are coded conversations that were intercepted.

"Because they are playing football in Somalia ... it's heating up a lot, so we're sending ... uh ... uniforms ... and ... uh ... sneakers for football over there, " is a conversation the government cites as an "overt act" in the furtherance of the conspiracy. Nowhere in the indictment is a specific plot mentioned or actual violent acts alleged.

But what may be most interesting is the way the Justice Department has made enemies of people who were fighting on our side.

The indictment accuses the defendants of supporting Muslim terrorism in Kosovo in the late 1990s. At that time, Muslim fighters under the umbrella of the Kosovo Liberation Army were using violence to fight Serbian nationalists. It had been named a terrorist group by the United States, yet by 1999 the United States was working alongside the KLA, if not providing direct support to the group. That year, President Clinton initiated a NATO air war to end the ethnic cleansing of the Muslim population in Kosovo. After the hostilities ended, many in the KLA became part of the new government.

But the Justice Department says it doesn't matter if the accused were working in common cause with the United States.

Think about this for a moment. The United States participates in a military campaign, but if an American sends money to a cooperating militia - an armed group fighting against the genocide of the donor's religious brethren - he can face life in prison. That's the U.S. posture.

Of course, regardless of the current charges, nothing justifies holding Padilla in a military brig in South Carolina for more than three years and treating him as subhuman. His attorneys say that after President Bush declared Padilla an enemy combatant in June 2002 he was kept isolated for the next 21 months. Padilla's cell was 9 by 7 feet, and there was no natural light. He was sometimes left there shackled and manacled, according to his attorneys, and was assaulted and placed in stress positions.

Although the abuse is denied by the government, Padilla's allegations are similar to the tales other terror suspects tell about their mistreatment.

What we know for certain is that Padilla has been a pawn in President Bush's ongoing efforts to retain kinglike powers. When the U.S. Supreme Court was on the cusp of deciding whether to hear a second appeal challenging Padilla's indefinite imprisonment - a case the administration probably would have lost - he was transferred into the criminal system.

Padilla was proclaimed a man too dangerous to be afforded any rights, until it looked like he might interfere with the president's ability to lock people up at will. Then he became a minor player in some overseas battles in which harm to Americans wasn't even an issue.

But if Padilla truly does hate this country, then it is George Bush who gave this former gang member the means to indelibly damage it. Thanks to Bush's jihad on our Constitution, Padilla will be remembered as the man who made America lose its way.