Justice Dept. Changes Story on Padilla

Jose Padilla, originally detained for an alleged “dirty bomb” plot, is now being accused of conspiring to blow up apartment buildings with natural gas.

Padilla, a New York-born American citizen, has been held since May 2002 without being charged. He was forbidden to speak to a lawyer until February 2004, shortly before the Supreme Court heard arguments in his habeas corpus case. The verdict in that case is expected sometime this month.

The new information does not pertain to Rumsfeld v. Padilla, though its release may be an effort to sway the court.

According to Deputy Attorney General James Comey,

“On April 22, Sen. Orrin Hatch, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, sent a letter to the attorney general asking the Department of Justice and the Department of Defense to supply whatever information we could about American citizens being held as enemy combatants here in the United States. …

“And while some information remains classified about Padilla, those efforts of those agencies have resulted in an answer to Sen. Hatch’s question that is remarkable for its scope, its clarity and its candor. [Emphasis mine.]

“That answer, which was provided to Sen. Hatch earlier today, and also provided to Padilla’s lawyers, and to our own Department of Justice lawyers handling his case in court, enables us for the first time to tell the full story of Jose Padilla. It will allow the American people to understand the threat he posed, and also understand that the president’s decision was and continues to be essential to the protection of the American people.”

The Washington Post summarizes the charges:

“Padilla was recruited by al Qaeda and originally trained to blow up apartment buildings using natural gas supplies, Comey said in a press conference. His partner in that scheme was to be Adnan G. El Shukrijumah, a Saudi native who lived in South Florida in the mid-1990s and is still on an FBI most wanted list, but the plan failed because the two men could not get along, Comey said.

“Still when Padilla returned to the United States, his handlers in al Qaeda were not sure if he would try to blow up buildings with natural gas or set off a radioactive ‘dirty bomb.’ He had offered to do both, Comey said. …

“Comey said the information he was presenting came in part from the questioning of Padilla while he was in military custody and could not be used in a criminal prosecution, although he did not rule out possible criminal charges against Padilla based on other evidence.

“‘We do not have any plans to present this, the information I have given you today, to a grand jury,’ Comey said. ‘I don’t believe we could use this information in a criminal case, because we deprived him of access to his counsel and questioned him in the absence of counsel.’ …

“Padilla has told investigators that he attended the camp in September and October of that year, ‘with the understanding’ that he would be sent to Chechnya to help Muslim fighters there who oppose Russian rule, Comey said. The training included handling weapons and explosives such as dynamite, mines and C-4 plastic explosives.

“It was while in Afghanistan he met al Qaeda’s military commander, Muhammad Atef, who asked him to undertake a mission to blow up apartment buildings in the United States, Comey said. Padilla then received further training and was paired up with Shukrijumah, whom he had known before in Florida. ‘They learned how to seal an apartment to trap the natural gas and to prepare an explosion using that gas that would have maximum yield and destroy an apartment building,’ Comey added. But the partners could not get along and the plan was temporarily put aside.

“Padilla returned to live with Atef, but his mentor was killed during a U.S. bombing raid in the Afghanistan war. Padilla decided to flee Afghanistan for Pakistan, where he approached Zubaida and suggested that he could deploy a ‘nuclear bomb’ in the United States, Comey alleged.

“Although Zubaida was skeptical of the plan, he sent Padilla and an accomplice to meet with Mohammed about it. Mohammed was also skeptical and urged the men to return to the original plan of blowing up apartment buildings. In fact, he suggested that they hit 20 buildings, but Padilla told Muhammed that he could not rent that many buildings without raising attention to himself, Comer said. So Muhammad sent Padilla and his accomplice, who was not named today, on their way with cash.”

Two experts of interest weigh in:

“Michael Greenberger, a University of Maryland law professor who has followed the Padilla case, said he believes the government is trying to influence Supreme Court justices who are now weighing Padilla’s challenge to his ‘enemy combatant’ status.

“Greenberger said he found the government’s public report on Padilla ‘to be highly unusual, and, I’m sorry to say, I come away with no other conclusion than it was designed to have some kind of extra-judicial influence on the Supreme Court decision.’

“Comey denied that the report is an attempt to influence the court. He also defended the two-year detention of Padilla, who was arrested in Chicago in May 2002 and accused of plotting to explode a radioactive ‘dirty bomb’ in the U.S. …

“Daphne Magnuson, a spokeswoman for the American Gas Association, which represents natural gas utilities, said she wouldn’t comment on a hypothetical terrorist scenario utilizing natural gas.

“‘What I can say is, a person bent on mischief or wrongdoing could misuse any form of home energy,’ Magnuson said. ‘Natural gas has an outstanding safety record, and it’s our job to expect the unexpected every day.’ About 61 percent of U.S. households use natural gas, she said.”

Padilla’s attorney, Donna Newman, says this is the first she’s heard of the new charges:

“And let me say this, that in the information that they have given to Congress, which I just received maybe an hour ago, states very specifically that – in a footnote, that Mr. Padilla has in fact denied many of the things that are contained in this alleged summary and what Mr. Comey is saying. So even then again they have to say, like they said before, that what they are saying is not exactly accurate. …

“At a trial, for example, Mr. Padilla, of course, can deny everything that’s being said here. We could prove, for example, that what they are saying is not accurate. In fact, as I mentioned, in their summary to Congress, they do mention that Mr. Padilla has denied much of what they are saying. So what we have said from day one, bring on the trial. All we have ever said, if you have the evidence, tell us and we will go to trial. Indict him.”