Esta página no está disponible en español.
Dirty Bombs And Civil Rights, Protect The Constitution, New Fears
Dirty Bombs And Civil Rights
June 12, 2002
The word from Washington yesterday was that Abdullah al-Muhajir, the American citizen accused of plotting a "dirty bomb" attack on the United States, may never be given a trial, or at least not anytime soon. "We are not interested in trying and punishing him at the moment," Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld declared yesterday. "We are interested in finding out what he knows." What the Bush administration must realize is that its job, even during these challenging times, is to do both: to investigate terrorism while also protecting the constitutional rights of those caught in the dragnet.
Mr. Muhajir is an American of Puerto Rican descent who was born Jose Padilla in Brooklyn, grew up in Chicago and changed his name as part of his conversion to Islam. Federal law enforcement officials contend that he became part of Al Qaeda's terrorist network, and that he talked with network leaders in Pakistan and Afghanistan about a plot to build and detonate a radioactive bomb. Mr. Muhajir was taken into custody on May 8 at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, upon returning from Pakistan.
It is difficult, at least at this point, to gauge the strength of the case against Mr. Muhajir. He was picked up on a material witness warrant and has not been charged with any crime. Law enforcement officials concede that whatever he might have been plotting never got beyond the discussion stage. So far, the government has produced no evidence that a dirty-bomb plot existed, or of Mr. Muhajir's role in one. We do, however, have President Bush's assurance, given when he was meeting with members of Congress at the White House yesterday, that "This guy Padilla is a bad guy."
If Mr. Muhajir's case had proceeded along the normal criminal-law path, it would have triggered procedures designed to protect his rights. He was scheduled for a hearing yesterday at which prosecutors might have had to decide whether to charge him with a crime. And he would have been able to challenge his detention; a federal judge in New York ruled recently that material witnesses cannot be held indefinitely. Instead the government chose to label Mr. Muhajir, who is now in a high-security jail in South Carolina, an "enemy combatant." The administration contends that merely by labeling him in this way, it can hold him indefinitely.
The government's position is unacceptable. Our Constitution guarantees that those suspected of crimes must be informed of the charges against them, be able to confront their accusers, consult with a lawyer and have a speedy and open trial. But that means very little if the government can revoke all those rights merely by labeling someone a combatant. And as Mr. Mujahir's case shows, the government is prepared to strip away the rights of American citizens as readily as those of foreigners.
The real problem with the government's approach is one that has been evident since Sept. 11: The Bush administration has too little faith in the criminal justice system. The government must be vigilant about fighting terrorism, but this war can be waged without suspending the Constitution.
Protect The Constitution In The Face Of Terrorism
June 12, 2002
José Padilla, Yasser Esam Hamdi and John Walker Lindh are U.S. citizens. The three are suspected terrorists and enemies of the United States. But only Mr. Lindh is being afforded the due-process protections granted citizens by the U.S. Constitution.
Why the different treatment? There is no rational explanation. The inconsistency is disturbing. It suggests that even U.S. citizens are now subject to a sliding scale of justice, to new discretionary rules of the war on terror. Yet the United States already has established law and legal remedies to balance the rights of the accused against their threat to society.
Are we a nation of laws? Do individual rights mean something less because the enemy is terror? Where might that erosion of rights end? We know the answers. But we wonder if the Bush administration does.
Don't get us wrong. We condemn terrorist acts and those who would undertake them. Those who would set off a dirty bomb in a deliberate attempt to harm innocent American civilians should be hunted down, prosecuted and punished to the fullest extent of the law.
Mr. Padilla is accused of plotting just such a radioactive bomb attack. Mr. Hamdi was among the alleged Taliban soldiers detained at the Guantánamo Naval Base until he was discovered to be a U.S. citizen.
Both were born in the United States and neither has been charged with a crime. Classified as ''enemy combatants,'' they are in the Pentagon's custody and can be detained indefinitely according to the new -- and apparently evolving -- rules of this war.
Mr. Lindh, the first American Taliban to be identified was plucked out of an Afghanistan prison. Yet unlike Mr. Hamdi, whose circumstances are parallel, Mr. Lindh has been afforded all standard due-process consideration. Charged with conspiracy and terrorism, Mr. Lindh has attorneys who vigorously defend his rights. He will see the evidence against him and has the right to a jury trial.
Could that be because he looks more ''American'' than Messrs. Hamdi and Padilla and has a name that doesn't end in a vowel? Would it have occurred to anyone to declare Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh an ''enemy combatant'' because of his direct attack on the U.S. government and slaughter of innocents?
We have no sympathy for those who serve al Qaeda and its demented quest to destroy America, particularly any U.S. citizen who would betray his country. But we also hold dear the law's presumption of innocence and the Constitutional right to due process that guards against wrongful convictions.
If Messrs. Padilla and Hamdi are suspected of treasonous crimes, there should be sufficient evidence -- and they should be appropriately charged and tried in a U.S. court. To declare U.S. citizens ''enemy combatants'' simply to hold them indefinitely doesn't wash. It is as if they have already been judged guilty and, therefore, deserve fewer rights. Any American could be next.
The opposite is needed. The strength of our laws and courts would show the world the justice of our cause.
June 12, 2002
Our position: The 'dirty-bomb' arrest is encouraging, but rights can't be ignored.
There is reason to cheer the arrest of an al-Qaeda linked suspect for allegedly plotting a "dirty-bomb" attack in the United States, but also reason to be troubled.
Federal agencies, including the FBI and CIA, worked together to nab Jose Padilla, also known as Abdullah al Muhajir, before he could carry out an attack -- something they failed to do before Sept. 11. As long as they continue to cooperate, Americans will be safer.
Yet there are unsettling questions raised by Mr. Padilla's detention. While his arrest was announced with great fanfare this week, he has been in custody since May 8. He has yet to be charged with a crime.
Unlike the al-Qaeda and Taliban detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Mr. Padilla is an American citizen. He is entitled to constitutional protections that are unavailable to the other, foreign prisoners.
Mr. Padilla was held in New York as a material witness in the weeks following his arrest. That status lets authorities keep a flight risk behind bars without a charge, but not indefinitely. Mr. Padilla was scheduled to appear Tuesday before a federal judge, who could have released him if prosecutors failed to lay out a strong case.
Rather than run that risk, authorities transferred him Monday to Defense Department custody, declaring him an "enemy combatant." That status means he can be held indefinitely and interrogated for more information.
Prosecutors reportedly were concerned that Mr. Padilla might exercise his constitutional right to remain silent. But that's an obstacle prosecutors routinely face, and routinely surmount, in our criminal-justice system. They manage to obtain information and convictions in spite of uncooperative suspects.
To justify their unusual treatment of Mr. Padilla, federal authorities have reached back in time more than half a century. They have cited a couple of World War II cases in which courts allowed U.S. citizens to be detained as enemy combatants.
It's risky to apply World War II precedents to the new, never-officially declared war on terrorism. President George W. Bush has warned that the conflict is likely to be a long one. If it is used too readily to cast aside constitutional protections, the United States will compromise the principles that separate us from the terrorists.
Besides, the suspects in the World War II cases were tried quickly before military tribunals. The new rules for such tribunals, issued last fall, specifically exclude American citizens. Unless those rules are changed, Mr. Padilla belongs in the civilian court system, just like American Taliban John Walker Lindh.
The prospect of a terrorist getting walking papers from a judge is frightening. But so is the notion that federal authorities would manipulate the rules of justice to keep an American citizen in custody rather than meet the burden of evidence for detaining him.