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Legal landmines emerge in 'dirty bomber' case

The Jose Padilla trial is a test: Can US avoid legal tangles of its 'war on terror' tactics?

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Jose Padilla, the former Chicago street thug who allegedly turned Al Qaeda sympathizer, is best known for reportedly plotting to explode a radiological "dirty bomb" in a major US city.

But that alarming allegation is noticeably absent from Mr. Padilla's terror conspiracy indictment in federal court here. Instead, the most explosive allegation in the government's case is that Padilla broke US law by becoming an Al Qaeda recruit and filling out an application to be a holy warrior.

Ahead of Padilla's trial, set for Jan. 22, defense lawyers are filing a flurry of pretrial motions seeking to establish that the government engaged in outrageous conduct by having the military detain and interrogate Padilla. The conduct was so outrageous, they say, that all charges against him must be dropped.

What makes Padilla's case potentially so important is that he is the first person designated by President Bush as an enemy combatant to later face criminal charges in a civilian court.

As such, his case exists at the murky intersection of two contrasting systems. On one side is the criminal-justice system, which operates under established rules and constitutional mandates designed to protect the rights of American citizens. On the other is a military interrogation system run exclusively by the executive branch and designed to extract confessions from Al Qaeda suspects through methods that violate many of the fundamental rules of the criminal-justice system.

No matter how Padilla's case ends – with a conviction, an acquittal, or a plea bargain – his case is an important test of whether the government will be able to avoid legal consequences for the tactics it used during Padilla's military detention and interrogation.

In effect, the Padilla case may ultimately help make the world safer for use of coercive interrogation tactics. It could do so, analysts say, by establishing legal precedents that insulate military interrogations from scrutiny by civilian judges in federal courts.

"This is one of the first cases with this overlap of military custody and civilian custody," says Timothy Lynch of the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington.

Padilla's treatment raises a "profound" legal issue, he says. "What can our military do to an American citizen held in military custody? Our legal system is not poised to confront that and resolve it," Mr. Lynch says.

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