Byline: Michael Isikoff
Word spread quickly through the Charleston Naval Station last June: a big-time terrorist was headed for the brig. An entire wing of the base's military lockup was emptied out. And when the prisoner arrived--31-year-old Jose Padilla--he was placed in an isolation cell with a lamp burning 24 hours a day and a phalanx of guards around the clock. One inmate asked a guard what exactly Padilla had been charged with. "He's not charged with anything," the guard shot back. "We're just holding him." The prisoner was baffled. "How the hell can you do that?" he asked.
Quite easily, it turns out. Attorney General John Ashcroft publicly accused Padilla--a.k.a. Abdullah al-Muhajir--of being a Qaeda operative who was actively "plotting" to set off a radiological bomb when he flew into Chicago's O'Hare Airport from Zurich four months ago. Inside the U.S. intelligence community, sources tell NEWSWEEK, there were high-level doubts about Ashcroft's dramatic announcement of an ongoing plot from the very beginning. But those views received scant attention at the White House, officials say. After a hastily signed finding by President George W. Bush that he was an "enemy combatant," Padilla was removed from a New York jail and flown to the Charleston brig in early June. He's been held there incommunicado ever since--with no charges pending against him and no prospect of a trial or court hearing where the government's evidence can be tested. Last week authorities told NEWSWEEK they're not even interested in making a case: they want to force Padilla to tell what he knows about Al Qaeda. "If this guy thinks he might be there for 20 years with no recourse, he might just say, 'OK, let's talk'," said one administration official.
Padilla's case promises to be a flash point in a high-stakes constitutional showdown over the legal basis for much of the administration's war on terrorism. Acting under the direction of Solicitor General Theodore Olson, administration lawyers have staked out increasingly bold positions: under his wartime powers as commander in chief, they argue, President Bush has wide-ranging powers to secretly round up suspected terrorists and detain them …