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Los Angeles Times

U.S. May Still Charge 'Enemy Combatant,' Gonzales Says

The attorney general admits that it may be difficult to build a case against Jose Padilla.

By Richard B. Schmitt, Times Staff Writer

December 12, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Los Angeles Times. All rights reserved.

WASHINGTON — Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales indicated Monday that the Justice Department might still file criminal charges against U.S.-born "enemy combatant" Jose Padilla, even if the courts ordered his release.

The Justice Department is appealing last week's decision by a federal judge that the Bush administration's nearly three-year detention of Padilla without charges or regular access to a lawyer violated the law.

Padilla has been in a military brig almost continuously since his May 2002 arrest by federal authorities in Chicago in connection with a suspected plot to launch a radioactive "dirty bomb" attack on the U.S.

The administration has argued in court that it has the right to detain Padilla indefinitely based on the inherent power of the president as commander in chief. But the court ordered the government to charge him, name him as a material witness or release him within 45 days.

"Certainly, pursuing criminal charges would be an option that the United States would have," Gonzales said in a meeting with reporters. "That decision has not been made yet."

But whether federal officials can build a criminal case against Padilla has been in doubt. The government has obtained a wealth of information about his activities.

Much of it, however, was obtained from Padilla when he was in military custody and did not have access to a lawyer — raising questions about the admissibility of such evidence in court.

The department in June aired a detailed accounting of how Padilla had befriended Al Qaeda leaders and plotted to blow up high-rise apartment buildings in the U.S.

The public disclosure of that information, Justice Department officials said, was done in part to defuse criticism that Padilla was being held unjustly.

Justice Department officials at the time said it would be difficult to bring criminal charges against Padilla.

"We obviously can't use any of the statements he's made in military custody, which will make that option challenging," James Comey, the deputy attorney general, said in making the Padilla report in June.

Gonzales said Monday that another concern was whether the government could make a case against Padilla without jeopardizing "sensitive intelligence collection sources" that provided information about him. Court rules normally would give Padilla the right to challenge his accusers.

Gonzales also said he would continue many of the policies of his predecessor, John Ashcroft, including aggressively enforcing and defending the Patriot Act, passed after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Portions of the law expire at the end of this year, and the administration is gearing up for a fight to renew them. But critics say the Patriot Act has sometimes been used to violate the rights of citizens.

"I want everyone to understand that I think the Patriot Act has served its purpose in protecting America in a way that has been consistent with our values," Gonzales said, adding that although he favored a debate about the law, he did not believe it had caused any abuses.

"I have yet to hear strong arguments as to why the Patriot Act should not be reauthorized," Gonzales said. He said critics of the law had spread "a lot of misinformation and disinformation" about its effect.

Gonzales also said he had commissioned an internal review to study how the department might further tighten enforcement of federal obscenity laws — another Ashcroft priority.

He said he had requested a "full briefing and report" on U.S. government efforts to address prisoner abuse by U.S. troops or agents in Cuba and Iraq. The Justice Department has received a number of criminal referrals involving allegations of prisoner mistreatment by CIA operatives.

Gonzales declined to discuss the cases, noting that they involved continuing investigations, but said the department would aggressively pursue allegations of criminal wrongdoing.

He said that he thought the department could better use faith-based organizations to administer Justice Department programs such as job training and education for prisoners.

He said that although he embraced an Ashcroft-era legal opinion broadly defining the 2nd Amendment right to bear arms, he did not view the opinion as prohibiting reasonable gun control efforts, such as barring former felons from owning firearms.

Gonzales also said that, while working in the White House, he did not recall being aware of an alleged assassination plot against President Bush, mentioned in the indictment of a former Virginia high school valedictorian last month.

According to the indictment, Ahmed Omar Abu Ali planned in 2002 and 2003 to kill Bush either by shooting him or by detonating a car bomb.

"I don't know if the president was ever briefed on this," Gonzales said. "I don't remember that I was ever briefed."

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