MARGARET WARNER: U.S. citizen Jose Padilla was arrested at O'Hare Airport in May 2002 on allegations that he was plotting to detonate a so-called dirty bomb in the U.S. One month later, President Bush declared Padilla an enemy combatant, consigning him to a military prison without formal charges or prospect of trial.
Today, Deputy Attorney General James Comey laid out newly declassified information about Padilla that he said proved the case was properly handled. Here is part of what he told reporters.
JAMES COMEY, Deputy Attorney General: Jose Padilla was more than a criminal defendant with a broad menu of rights that we offer in our great criminal justice system. On May 8 of 2002, a soldier of our enemy, a trained, funded and equipped terrorist, stepped off that plane at Chicago's O'Hare. A highly trained al-Qaida soldier who had accepted an assignment to kill hundreds of innocent men, women and children by destroying apartment buildings; an al-Qaida soldier who still hoped and planned to do even more by detonating a radiological device, a dirty bomb, in this country.
Two years ago, the president of the United States faced a very difficult choice. After a careful process, he decided to declare Jose Padilla for what he was, an enemy combatant, a member of a terrorist army bent on waging war against innocent civilians. And the president's decision was to hold him to protect the American people and to find out what he knows.
We now know much of what Jose Padilla knows. And what we have learned confirms that the president of the United States made the right call, and that that call saved lives.
MARGARET WARNER: One of Padilla's attorneys, Donna Newman, spoke to reporters later this afternoon.
DONNA NEWMAN, Attorney for Jose Padilla: Our government is not based on a system in which: because the president believes that somebody is dangerous that they simply throw somebody in a black hole and keep them in prison forever. Rather, our system very definitively is if the government believes that somebody has committed a crime, if they believe somebody is dangerous, when they do is bring a charge and bring it to trial.
MARGARET WARNER: For more on this story, we're joined by Eric Lichtblau of the New York Times. Eric, welcome.
ERIC LICHTBLAU: Thanks.
MARGARET WARNER: What are the most interesting new facts that were laid out today to prove or to demonstrate that Padilla wasn't just some insignificant terrorist want to be, but was in the words of Comey a highly trained al-Qaida soldier?
ERIC LICHTBLAU: Well, to me the most interesting fact was that officials said Padilla has been cooperating and cooperating quite extensively for almost the last two years.
That was not really known prior to today. There was a broad outline that was publicly known about the accusations against him, the idea that he had contact with senior al-Qaida officials that he had come back to the United States with the idea of plotting a terrorist attack -- but much of the new details apparently coming from Padilla himself, in terms of who exactly he met with the Middle East, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and in his plans to get back to the United States for how he might go about carrying out a plot.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, what was this apartment house bombing plot, what were the particulars of that, that's new, isn't it?
ERIC LICHTBLAU: That's somewhat new. That actually is different than the idea of a dirty bomb. Apparently according to the declassified papers today, the al-Qaida leadership had actually scuttled the idea of a dirty bomb. They had told Padilla they did not think it would work.
And they then went back to a more conventional plot that involved Padilla and another associate renting apartments in two separate apartment buildings, turning up the natural gas heat and then setting off conventional detonated devices to get them to go off simultaneously. That's information apparently from Padilla himself as to what they were plotting.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, why is the Justice Department going public with this now?
ERIC LICHTBLAU: Well, the timing depends on who you ask.
The Justice Department says that the timing is probably a matter what was they could get the declassified material ready, that they have been working on this for some months basically, because as Deputy Attorney General Comey said, he had been besieged with questions from people, even people who supported the war on terrorism, saying that they just didn't get this Padilla case and why was the United States locking someone up indefinitely. He says they've been working for month to get the papers declassified.
People in the defense community and in the civil rights community give a different interpretation, which is that with the Supreme Court getting ready in the next couple weeks to decide this very important case, this is a matter of if not swaying the court itself, at least swaying the court of public opinion.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, we heard Padilla's lawyer complaining that Padilla's side of the story hasn't been told. But in fact some of his side of the story is in the footnotes of these papers, isn't it?
ERIC LICHTBLAU: Well, right, but that's of course filtered through the government, that's what the Pentagon and the Justice Department say that Padilla has told them. So it is true that he has not had his own attorneys or independently allowed him to give his side of the story.
MARGARET WARNER: I guess I was prompting to you tell us what his version is.
ERIC LICHTBLAU: Right. Well, his version, as we talked about with the apartment buildings et cetera, is that he basically was committed to jihad and went first to Egypt, then to Pakistan, Afghanistan beginning in '98 and hooked up with very similar members of al-Qaida, including Khalid Sheik Mohammed, Mohammed Atef, Abu Zubaydah and others, received training and began plotting specific ways of attacking the United States.
MARGARET WARNER: But didn't he tell investigators, that well, he never really intended to do the dirty bomb plot, he was just trying to get out of having to go fight in Afghanistan, and he was just trying to impress Abu Zubaydah?
ERIC LICHTBLAU: There was some indication of that, yes, there were some contradictions as to what plot they were pursuing, who was in control, who was saying what, yes, that is true.
MARGARET WARNER: How much access have these lawyers had to him and vice versa?
ERIC LICHTBLAU: They've been allowed to meet with him twice, which only happened recently within the last few months. The Pentagon changed its position after more than a year and a half of being held, incommunicado, they allowed defense attorneys to have access to them, although it was under fairly restrained conditions.
MARGARET WARNER: When is the nub of why they, they have all this evidence, but they have not brut this case to trial?
ERIC LICHTBLAU: Well, the explanation that Mr. Comey gave today was that if they had pursued it in the traditional criminal courts they never would have gotten this information from Padilla, that he would have clamed up immediately as soon as his lawyers got a hold of him and we wouldn't know as much as we do now about al-Qaida.
That's a controversial and disputed notion. Defense attorneys say in fact he should be charged criminally, if they had the goods on him, prove it in court.
MARGARET WARNER: All this stuff that he said while in military detention, none of that would be admissible in a regular criminal court?
ERIC LICHTBLAU: Almost certainly not. They would have to wipe the slate clean and start a new criminal case and in all likelihood could not use the statements he's made in military detention.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, Comey indicated today when you were questioning him, they hadn't totally ruled outgoing to trial, is there really anything a foot on that front?
ERIC LICHTBLAU: He certainly kept open that door. He made it seem less likely, less likely that they would go that route and he hinted at the fact they might be considering other options short of keeping a military extension, but for now he has declared an enemy combatant for as long as the war on terrorism is being waged and there no end to that in sight.
MARGARET WARNER: Are there any other options open? There's either the regular U.S. criminal system, criminal justice system or this total military detention?
ERIC LICHTBLAU: Well, he was asked that and he did not mention any specifically.
MARGARET WARNER: Finally, explain the connection between this case and one of the seven people who were, when John Ashcroft had his press conference last week and he said we're looking for these seven people, one of them was connected to Padilla?
ERIC LICHTBLAU: Right, a man from Florida, Adnan El Shukrijumah, was as you say among the seven people that Attorney General Ashcroft and FBI Director Mueller said last week they would like desperately to find. He allegedly was an accomplice of Padilla, who met him in Afghanistan and for a while they were plotting together, although there was indication that they did not get along terribly well and that led them to go separate ways.
MARGARET WARNER: Eric, thanks again.
ERIC LICHTBLAU: Thanks for having me.