Appeals Court: U.S. May Hold Combatants Indefinitely

A federal appeals court rules that President Bush has the authority to detain individuals he declares to be enemy combatants — indefinitely and without criminal charges. The 4th Circuit Appeals Court in Richmond rules on the case of Jose Padilla, arrested three years ago in Chicago on suspicions of planning to explode a radioactive "dirty bomb."

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

A legal victory for the Bush administration today in the case of Jose Padilla. The 4th Circuit Appeals Court in Richmond ruled that American citizens may be held as enemy combatants even if they are arrested on US soil. NPR's Ari Shapiro has the story.

ARI SHAPIRO reporting:

Since soon after Jose Padilla was arrested at Chicago's O'Hare Airport in 2002, courts have disagreed over whether he can be held without charges. Administration officials accused the former gang member of training with al-Qaeda and planning to carry out a terrorist attack in the US. A judge in South Carolina said, `Prove it in court. Charge Padilla or release him.' Today three federal appeals court judges overturned that ruling. Judge Michael Luttig wrote the opinion. His name has been suggested as a potential Supreme Court nominee to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

In the ruling, Luttig said the case is about whether the president can militarily detain an American citizen with close ties to al-Qaeda who comes to the US planning to wage war. Luttig said the president does have that authority. Congress gave it to him when it authorized the president to use military force after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Still, Luttig mentions in a footnote that the authority may only last as long as the US keeps fighting al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Padilla's attorney, Andrew Patel, says this decision should worry all Americans.

Mr. ANDREW PATEL (Padilla's Attorney): In this country we have a Constitution prior to today we thought guaranteed American citizens certain rights. But after today we can't really be sure of that 'cause some of those rights now appear to be optional.

SHAPIRO: The Justice Department would not speak on tape about the case, but in a press release Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said, `The authority to detain enemy combatants like Jose Padilla plays an important role in protecting American citizens from the very kind of savage attack that took place almost four years ago to the day.' Padilla's attorneys plan to appeal this ruling. It could go to the full appeals court and then to the Supreme Court.

The high court has already heard a case similar to this one involving a man named Yaser Hamdi. Like Padilla, Hamdi was a US citizen who was declared an enemy combatant. But unlike Padilla, Hamdi was arrested overseas. In that case, the justices said US citizens can be held as enemy combatants, but they have a right to challenge that designation in court. When Yaser Hamdi challenged his detention, federal officials said he was no longer a threat, and they returned him to his family in Saudi Arabia. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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