John Ashcroft announced last week that Jose Padilla is a "dirty bomber," a terrorist who changed his name to Abdullah al-Muhajir and consorted with Al Qaeda. Arrested a month ago in a Chicago airport with a suitcase containing $10,000 in cash, he was supposedly on his way to wreak havoc in Washington DC by exploding a powerful bomb that would disperse radioactive dust over several city blocks.
Within hours of this announcement, the government's story began to unravel. The national press initially reported Ashcroft's words as if they were the gospel, but as soon as they searched for details, the house of cards collapsed.
Did Jose Padilla consort with Al Qaeda? One "source" told Walter Pincus of the Washington Post that Padilla had met with Abu Zubaida, a senior Al Qaeda recruiter and field commander, after September 11 in Pakistan and Afghanistan. But neither the CIA nor the Department of Justice has offered any evidence to support this, and Pincus doesn't say who his source is or what agency he or she works for.
Reuters news service cites a US official who says that Padilla had met with "senior al-Qaeda leaders," but again gives no details. If this US official is John Ashcroft or Undersecretary of State John Bolton (remember him?--the guy who falsely claimed a few weeks ago that Cuba is developing bioterror weapons?), then the reliability of this information is in question.
Then there's the question of what tipped the CIA off to Padilla in the first place. Abu Zubaida was captured by Pakistanis in March and has been held in "an undisclosed location" in Pakistan, where's he been subjected to continuous interrogation, possibly torture, by US and Pakistani intelligence officers. Torture--or even just heavy interrogation--of a unwilling prisoner produces notoriously unreliable information. Zubaida is the source for numerous false alarms of recent months, including FBI warnings that terrorists would attack US banks, US shipping, or residential apartment buildings. Several US intelligence people, under condition of anonymity, have said that Zubaida is just playing with us, feeding false information to create panic. He's largely succeeded.
Yet Zubaida is the source for the whole "dirty bomb" idea. He told US intelligence that two guys were going to plant a bomb in Washington DC and gave them some general physical descriptions of the two plotters. From this information, the CIA and FBI went on to compile a list of suspects, look at photos, interview people, etc. They came up with Padilla, who had recently traveled through Europe and the Middle East.
Notably, some intelligence folks--again speaking on condition of anonymity--expressed puzzlement: why would Zubaida suddenly give true information?
Perhaps because it's not true.
With that in mind, the next question is: what evidence does the CIA have that Padilla planned to explode a "dirty bomb," and how far did he get in his preparations? Undersecretary of State John Bolton asserted that Padilla was carrying plans to make a dirty bomb when he was intercepted and arrested by FBI agents. Later, US officials backtracked and admitted that Padilla had no papers on him; the bombing was in the planning stages. A little while later, US officials backtracked even further and said that, well, you know, it was in the very early planning stages.
What does all that mean, exactly? When pressed for evidence, US officials quietly admitted that Padilla had been caught looking at information on dirty bombs on the Internet.
Now, I've looked at information on dirty bombs on the Internet. Months ago, when US officials and "terrorism experts" were first panicking about the notion of a dirty bomb being exploded in a US city, I wanted to know what the hell they were talking about, and so I surfed the Internet, along with millions of other Americans. I had no difficulty finding information on how dirty bombs could be made (complete with diagrams) on major news media websites. Articles in the Washington Post, The New York Times, USA Today, and other national newspapers detailed how dirty bombs function, how they could be assembled, the possible impact on the population of a city, and even where to obtain the radioactive materials.
But, of course, there's still that $10,000 in the suitcase. Doesn't that prove he was up to something?
Last month, Padilla traveled from Pakistan to Zurich, Switzerland, where he collected the $10,000 from a bank, and then he flew to the US. There are two main industries in the world where large sums of money are routinely moved around in cash in suitcases. First, there's the international black market weapons trade. Padilla may have come to Chicago to buy weapons off the street from his former gang contacts to box up and send abroad to militants in Pakistan. That would make him a gun runner, not a terrorist.
The second industry that relies on moving around big cash payments is the international narcotics trade. It's suspicious that US intelligence sources and the US press, when discussing Padilla's gang background, don't mention whether he participated in the one activity that keeps Chicago gangs afloat: the drug trade. Right now opium production in Afghanistan and Pakistan is surging, while heroin is making a resurgence on our nation's streets. Coincidence? Maybe.
Whether Padilla is a drug courier or arms smuggler, there are laws that govern such crimes, and he should be tried in a criminal court, not held incommunicado as an "enemy combatant." But the Ashcroft Department of Justice is not interested in trying him for any crime. Donald Rumsfeld has said that "we want to find out what he knows." To do that, they have to burn the Bill of Rights and hold him under conditions that verge on torture: no access to a lawyer, no visits from friends or family, no exercise without heavy shackles on his wrists and ankles, solitary confinement, and no access to sources of information outside his tiny cell. Add to that a daily (perhaps nightly) regimen of interrogations with no lawyer or human rights monitor present, and Padilla might as well be rotting in an Iraqi prison.
These are the reasons why officials in Britain (our ally in the war in Afghanistan) have described the Bush administration's treatment of terrorism suspects as "scandalous" and "not benchmarks of a civilised society." Britain and other European governments have even released terrorist suspects from jail--men that the US government tried to extradite--citing lack of evidence and the unwillingness to deport them to a nation where they will have no rights or legal status.
Congress--and the press--ought to be investigating the Ashcroft Department of Justice for its violations of the Constitution and Bill of Rights. And they should begin doing it now, while it can still be done.
Some sources for
this article: "US to interrogate 'dirty bomb' suspect,"
Guardian Unlimited, 6/12/02; "Doubts over US claims on 'dirty
bomb,'" Oliver Burkeman and Julian Borger, Guardian Unlimited,
6/12/02; "Agency Teamwork, Bin Laden Aide's Clues Led to
Arrest," Walter Pincus, Washington Post, 6/11/02; "Attorney:
Padilla's Held Illegally," Tom Hays, Associated Press, 6/12/02;
"Timing of plot news fit Bush's agenda; Some say backlash
could occur if public suspects political motive," Judy Keen,
USA Today, 6/12/02; "UK anti-terrorist officials alarmed
at US tactics," Richard Norton-Taylor, Guardian Unlimited,