Strategy on terror cases results in paradoxes

Those playing small roles are tried

main plotters are held secretly

Analysis

May 04, 2006|By DAVID SAVAGE | DAVID SAVAGE,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- The only person prosecuted for the worst terrorist attack in American history, Zacarias Moussaoui, was spared a death sentence yesterday because some jurors concluded that he had little to do with the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Meanwhile. the two key planners of the al-Qaida plot, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh, have not been prosecuted, even though they have been in U.S. custody for more than three years.

That conundrum results from the Bush administration's approach to combating terrorism, which leads to public prosecutions of bit players while the main plotters are held for secret questioning.

Government officials say the difference can be explained by the nature of terrorism. From the beginning, they have said that gathering intelligence from suspected terrorists was more important than publicly punishing them.

The result has been a strategy of crime and punishment that has lacked proportion.

Muslim men from Portland, Ore.; Lackawanna, N.Y.; and Lodi, Calif., have been prosecuted and imprisoned for having attended training camps in Afghanistan. Charged with conspiracy and providing "material support" to terrorists, those men had little of substance to reveal to U.S. intelligence authorities.

Similarly, the Bush administration went to court and sought a life term in prison for John Walker Lindh, a California-born Muslim convert who went to Afghanistan to fight for the Taliban government before the U.S. invasion. He pleaded guilty in exchange for a 20-year prison sentence.

It was a different matter when the FBI arrested Jose Padilla in Chicago in 2002. The Brooklyn native, a convert to Islam, was suspected of leading a plot to set off a radioactive "dirty bomb."

Rather than file terrorism charges against him, the government branded Padilla an "enemy combatant" and confined him to a military brig for three years.

Government lawyers said they were reluctant to charge Padilla with a crime because that would entitle him to a lawyer, who would have immediately told his client not to talk to government investigators.

Late last year, the administration changed course, charging Padilla with several minor terrorism-related crimes but not with the plot to set off the dirty bomb.

Moussaoui is the only person to have been charged by the government with Sept. 11-related crimes but is not the only person connected with the attacks to be held by the United States.

Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who was captured in Pakistan three years ago, has told investigators about the Sept. 11 plot in great detail. Ten years ago, he conceived of the idea of using hijacked commercial airplanes as missile-like weapons and eventually persuaded al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden to finance the plot.

Having been put in charge of the plot to target the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Mohammed chose Ramzi Binalshibh to coordinate the operation of the 19 hijackers and to serve as their paymaster. Binalshibh was taken prisoner four years ago. He and Mohammed have been held in secret prisons outside the United States since their capture.

All of that information about the Sept. 11 plot was submitted to the court in Alexandria, Va., as part of Moussaoui's trial. In a 56-page statement, Mohammed said Moussaoui was considered unreliable. Moussaoui was to train in the United States and be ready for a possible "second wave" of attacks, Mohammed said.

Moussaoui "did not know [Mohamed] Atta," the leader of the hijackers, "and there was never any contact between them," Mohammed said.

That did not prevent the administration from prosecuting Moussaoui, even though he had been arrested in Minnesota and jailed on a visa violation three weeks before the attacks. He made their case easy by pleading guilty to a conspiracy that he said he was not a part of.

Administration officials said the planners of the attacks might still be prosecuted.

David Savage writes for the Los Angeles Times

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