A critical legal case shedding light on President Bush's antiterror tactics will soon come to a head. A jury will decide in coming days if an American citizen, Jose Padilla, is guilty of aiding Al Qaeda. The verdict will signal whether US civic values must be bent to win a war.
A three-part Monitor series reveals the troubling ways in which the administration shifted charges against Mr. Padilla, tried to avoid judicial review of his case, and likely damaged his mental health by using extreme isolation to extract information from him. (See final story.)
The ordeal of this former gang member and Taco Bell worker born in Brooklyn, who allegedly met with Al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan to plot a radiological "dirty bomb" attack on a US city, has taken on implications that will shape the American campaign against Islamic terrorists for years to come.
At its root, US treatment of Padilla shows the inclination to do anything to break the silence of a suspected terrorist, even it means violating such basic citizen rights as protection against self-incrimination and harsh interrogation, as well as the right to a trial.
In short, the US military used terror – Padilla had little or no human contact for more than three years – to fight terror. Many mental health experts say his severe seclusion in a Navy brig impaired his thinking. A judge confirmed the disability but let the case continue, refusing to probe the government's hand in altering Padilla's ability to defend himself.
Forensic psychiatrist Angela Hegarty, who spent 22 hours with Padilla, says he has radically changed since his arrest in 2002. Whenever she tried to talk to him about his case, "he would just stop, change the subject, and twitch."
The odd trajectory of this case also shows the bob-and-weave tactics used by the administration to avoid constitutional challenges to the way it handles terror suspects.
At first, Padilla's rights were protected because he was detained under the criminal-justice system. But then he was labeled an enemy combatant and put under military control, like noncitizen detainees at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. When the courts appeared close to challenging his status, the Bush administration switched him back to a criminal court and lessened the charges to one of merely supporting Al Qaeda.
Guilty or not, Padilla deserves the same rule of law that any US citizen can expect. America can't win a global war to defend its values by stepping on them. As Army Capt. Ian Fishback wrote to Sen. John McCain after witnessing US military abuses in Afghanistan: "I would rather die fighting than give up even the smallest part of the idea that is America."
One protection from Islamic terrorists lies in clinging to the civic virtues that terrorists seek to end. Such values are a source of safety and should not be eroded in trying to kill, capture – or prosecute – suspected terrorists.
One of America's strengths in this war lies in being able to rally other nations to its side by upholding universal principles. That same strength also weakens terrorists.
The jury may well find Padilla guilty, but it may also see the injustice done in his case, and decide otherwise.
Victory in war is sometimes a victory simply for the rule of law.