WASHINGTON - U.S. Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales indicated yesterday that the Justice Department might still file criminal charges against U.S.-born "enemy combatant" Jose Padilla, even if the courts order his release.
The Justice Department is appealing last week's decision by a federal judge that the nearly three-year detention of Padilla without charges or access to a lawyer violated the law.
Padilla has been in a military brig almost continuously since his May 2002 arrest in Chicago in a suspected plot to launch a radioactive "dirty bomb" attack on the United States.
The Bush 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.
"That decision has not been made yet."
But whether federal officials could build a criminal case against Padilla has been in some 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 its admissibility in court.
Last June, the department aired a detailed accounting of how Padilla had befriended al-Qaida leaders and plotted to blow up high-rise apartment buildings in the United States. That disclosure, Justice officials said, was done in part to defuse criticism that Padilla was being held unjustly.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.