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Beyond Padilla terror case, huge legal issues

His detention and interrogation in the US raises basic constitutional questions.

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Jose Padilla is known worldwide as the man who plotted with Al Qaeda to detonate a radiological "dirty bomb" in a major US city.

He allegedly presented his plan to top Al Qaeda leaders Abu Zubaydah and 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. But according to US intelligence reports, both men doubted Mr. Padilla could pull off the attack.

For his part, Padilla told military interrogators that he never intended to carry it out. The former Taco Bell employee made the proposal in early 2002 as a way to justify fleeing Pakistan to avoid being sent to combat US forces in Afghanistan, says a government account.

So is Padilla – whose terror conspiracy case could go to a Miami jury Wednesday – a committed Al Qaeda operative, or merely a big-talking mujahideen wannabe who ultimately wanted to go home?

The answer to that question is important. Padilla isn't a run-of-the-mill enemy combatant apprehended on a foreign battlefield. He is a United States citizen, arrested on US soil, who was held in a military prison for 43 months and subjected to harsh interrogation techniques until he confessed.

Padilla was given due process to file a lawsuit challenging his treatment by the government. But as an enemy combatant, he was stripped of every other constitutional protection and right, including the right to know that a constitutional challenge had been filed on his behalf.

Many legal scholars and intelligence experts say Padilla's ordeal highlights the danger of a government that obtains information through secret, coercive means and then selectively releases some of it to justify its actions.

"This is the hallmark of an authoritarian state," says Larry Johnson, a former State Department counterterrorism official and former analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency.

"At many of the points at which the government said 'dirty bomb,' there was no opportunity to respond for the reason that Mr. Padilla was in solitary confinement and no lawyer had been able to talk to him about the charges," says Diane Amann, visiting law professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

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