WASHINGTON - A federal appeals court ruled yesterday that Jose Padilla, held for more than three years after federal officials said he planned to set off radiological devices or "dirty bombs," can be detained indefinitely without trial.
The unanimous decision by a panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., significantly boosts the Bush administration's program of jailing key al-Qaida and Taliban suspects around the world without filing criminal charges or holding trials, whether the detainees are Americans arrested in the United States or foreigners seized abroad, in an effort to squeeze intelligence information from alleged militant operatives.
The ruling could have major implications for detainees at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where many, like Padilla, have been deemed "enemy combatants."
Judge Michael Luttig wrote the decision for a three-member appellate court panel.
He is considered to be on President Bush's short list of candidates for a vacancy on the Supreme Court.
Padilla's attorneys plan to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court. If they do not prevail, the ruling yesterday would apparently seal Bush's controversial use of executive authority to skirt the U.S. courts.
"The court's ruling effectively declares the entire world, including the United States, to be a battlefield subject to military jurisdiction, where American citizens can be stripped of their constitutional rights," said Deborah Pearlstein, director of the U.S. Law and Security Program at Human Rights First, a rights advocacy group in New York and Washington.
At the heart of the White House argument to permanently detain a half-dozen militant figures in this country, as well as the Guantanamo Bay captives, was the fear that they could be acquitted at trial and would then be released.
But by invoking the Authorization for Use of Military Force Joint Resolution, which Congress enacted after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the president can indefinitely detain suspected militants "in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States," the appeals court said.
Equally important, administration officials said, was the need to interrogate suspects to learn about potential attacks.
In Padilla's case, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales indicated yesterday that his continuing incarceration had paid off in new U.S. intelligence about militant activities.
"Multiple intelligence sources separately confirmed Padilla's involvement in planning future terrorist attacks against the United States with al-Qaida leaders," Gonzales said.
Those targets are believed to have been apartment buildings and gas stations in the United States; the weapons allegedly being developed were radiological dispersal devices, also known as "dirty bombs."
Despite the government's heightened concern about keeping Padilla locked up, his chief attorney, Donna Newman of New York, said she never sought his automatic release from a Navy brig in Charleston, S.C. Rather, she said, she wanted the government to try him.
"They're not giving him a chance to fight this," she said. "They're telling him he's going to be held forever, that he has no rights. What they're saying is worse than a life sentence."
Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law, questioned what intelligence Padilla could provide after more than three years in jail, because many terror operatives he knew, among them Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, have also been arrested.
"Why not go ahead and prosecute him?" Tobias said. "What is there more to get from him? Except to make an example of him."
Tobias also wondered whether Luttig should have recused himself in the case, given his potential nomination to the Supreme Court.
Padilla, 34, was born in New York and raised in Chicago. As an adult in South Florida, he embraced Islam and moved to the Middle East and Central Asia.
According to the opinion yesterday, which included information provided by the government, al-Qaida operatives recruited Padilla to train for jihad in Afghanistan in February 2000, while he was on a religious pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia.
He met al-Qaida leaders, was taught how to build and detonate explosives, and served as an armed guard "at what he understood to be a Taliban outpost" in Afghanistan, the ruling said.
When the United States invaded Afghanistan, "Padilla and other al-Qaida operatives moved from safe house to safe house to evade bombing or capture," the opinion said. He escaped to Pakistan, armed with an assault rifle.
There, he met with Mohammad, who "directed Padilla to travel to the United States for the purpose of blowing up apartment buildings, in continued prosecution of al-Qaida's war on terror against the United States. After receiving further training, as well as cash, travel documents and communication devices, Padilla flew to the United States in order to carry out his accepted assignment," the ruling said.
He landed at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport on May 8, 2002, was arrested by FBI agents and sent to New York, where he was held on a material witness warrant.
On June 9, 2002, Bush designated him an "enemy combatant," and he was moved to the Navy brig in South Carolina.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.