Suspected 'Dirty Bomber' Indicted for Conspiracy

A federal grand jury in Miami has indicted suspected "dirty bomber" Jose Padilla on charges he conspired to "murder, kidnap and maim" Americans as an Al Qaeda recruit. Madeleine Brand speaks with Larry Abramson about the indictment of Padilla, a U.S. citizen denied full access to the American legal system for three years as an "enemy combatant."

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

Coming up, the woes of the American auto industry. But, first, the Justice Department today announced criminal charges against Jose Padilla. Padilla, a Brooklyn native who converted to Islam, has been held for more than three years as an enemy combatant; that is, held without charges and mostly incommunicado in a military brig. This morning Attorney General Alberto Gonzales announced the criminal indictment.

Mr. ALBERTO GONZALES (Attorney General): Earlier today a superceding indictment was unsealed in federal court in the southern district of Florida charging Jose Padilla with providing and conspiring to provide material support to terrorists and conspiring to murder individuals who are overseas.

BRAND: NPR's Larry Abramson is here to discuss the indictment.

And, Larry, we first heard in 2002, three years ago, that Padilla had plotted to set off a radioactive bomb in the US, a dirty bomb. Where did that charge go?

LARRY ABRAMSON reporting:

Well, it never went anywhere. It wasn't really a charge. It was simply, pardon me, a story that the Justice Department told the American people and never really presented any evidence to back it up. But they basically said, `This guy is so dangerous, we need to hold him as only one of two enemy combatants who were being held in this country,' not counting those down in Guantanamo. The other one was, of course, Yaser Hamdi, who has been since released to Saudi Arabia. And that was sort of the end of it for a while.

And then a couple years later the Justice Department said, `Well, actually we think that Padilla's main focus was to blow up apartment buildings in this country.' And we heard quite a long description of how he had raised money, gone to al-Qaeda, urged them to let him blow up a dirty bomb. But they encouraged him to follow this other plot, which was to open up the gas valves in apartment buildings in Florida and in other cities--in other parts of the country and blow them up. And that was the story.

And when we asked at that point in time, `Well, why didn't you charge him with that?' and they said, `Well, you know, all the information's classified. It would jeopardize a lot of sources. We can't really do that, but we feel like we need to explain why we're holding this man for three years.' And in the--at that point Padilla was then and is still challenging his detention as an enemy combatant. Now he finally is facing criminal charges and will probably no longer be an enemy combatant. He'll just be a regular old defendant.

BRAND: And the apartment plot is not in that indictment.

ABRAMSON: It's not at all. In fact, what we hear is a long story about how he communicated with alleged terrorists overseas, exchanged money with them, talked in code with them. There are, you know, some very obscure references to `the zucchini,' to, you know, `Our team scored,' various football metaphors. We don't know exactly what they're doing, but the Justice Department seems to think what they're doing is plotting to murder nationals overseas; raising money for jihadist purposes in Chechnya and other parts of the world. And there's no connection between this story, which apparently happened in the late 1990s, and the dirty bomb and/or apartment explosion stuff, which was supposed to have happened, you know, after the year 2000.

BRAND: And as you said, Padilla has repeatedly challenged his confinement in military custody. His appeal is before the Supreme Court or going before the Supreme Court. So where does that go now?

ABRAMSON: Well, his attorney apparently told CNN that he didn't think that that matter was moot; that they would continue to argue that. But Padilla is being transferred from the Defense Department brig in South Carolina to a Justice Department facility in Miami, Florida. And I'm not really sure how much longer they will have any reason to continue to challenge his status as an enemy combatant. He could simply be held without bond. But since all of this is unprecedented, I think the wheels are going to have to turn a little bit before we find out whether or not his case before the Supreme Court evaporates.

BRAND: NPR's Larry Abramson, thank you.

ABRAMSON: Thank you.

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