Forget the Pledge of Allegiance. Forget Elizabeth Smart. Where in the world is Jose Padilla?
In a sequence of events that should turn every American literally white with terror before the awesome power of our media apparatus, a former gang member-turned-would-be terrorist was dug up out of a pit after being held illegally for a month, offered to the entire world as public enemy number one for about ten minutes, and then tossed back into purgatory, apparently to be officially forgotten for the rest of eternity.
Ask anyone, even the people you’re sitting with right now, what associations come to mind when you mention the name Jose Padilla. In 100 cases out of 100, the answer you’ll get will run along the following lines: terrorist, suspected Al-Qaeda member, ringleader in a plot to explode a “dirty bomb” in Washington. As for visual images, the only one ever offered for anyone to recall later on was the notorious mugshot, a single grainy picture of a clearly nonwhite person that on June 11th was plastered on the front page of every major daily newspaper in America, as a crude but chilling portrait of the Dark Threat looming over our good society.
All of this is the frightening result of the continuing union between a ruthless, space-age propaganda machine and a pliant consumer population with an attention span of about eight seconds. Because the Padilla story will never be revisited, neither the accusations we associate with his name, nor the emotional effect of the mugshot image, will ever be undone. We all bought the story– but should we have?
Even the most cursory review of the timeline of the Padilla story reveals that, far from being a simple story of a foiled terrorist plot, this was in fact a masterpiece of orchestrated propaganda, a brilliant manipulation of the biography of a common criminal for a variety of dramatic political objectives. From Willie Horton to Iran-Contra to Watergate, the lessons of almost every major political snow job of the past quarter-century were mined to yield a bag of tricks used flawlessly and compellingly for three short weeks.
Here is a timeline of the Jose Padilla story, stretched out to cover a period slightly longer than fifteen minutes:
May 8: After returning from Pakistan, Padilla, an American of Puerto Rican descent who now calls himself Abdullah al Muhajir, is “detained” by the FBI. No charges are filed, but he is nonetheless transferred to a jail in New York, where, in clear violation of the law, he will remain in custody without a charge until June 9.
No word of Padilla’s arrest is leaked to the media at this time, and there appears to be no hurry to make the matter public. He is simply an anonymous person rotting quietly behind bars. But a few seemingly irrelevant events would soon coincide to push Padilla to the surface.
The first development was an earlier May 1 ruling by a New York Federal Judge named Shira Scheindlin, who on that date released a Jordanian-born college student named Osama Awadallah. Awadallah had been held in jail for three months without a charge on the grounds that he had lied to investigators about knowing one of the Sept. 11 hijackers. Scheindlin ruled that “Relying on the material witness statute to detain people who are presumed innocent under our Constitution in order to prevent potential crimes is an illegitimate use of the statute.”
The judge’s ruling declared Minority Report-style policing illegal. In order to detain someone, even as a witness, Scheindlin ruled that the detention had to be in connection with a crime already committed, not one that the suspect might commit in the future.
This statute applied directly to Padilla, who, as fate would have it, was being held within Scheindlin’s jurisdiction. Whether or not his case would be made public, it was fairly clear that Padilla would eventually have to be moved.
The second thing that took place was a May 30 announcement by John Ashcroft that the Justice Department would now follow new rules in determining how investigations into the lives of individuals might occur. The new set of rules threw out the old standard of “reasonable suspicion” of criminal activity, and allowed agents to conduct fishing expeditions for up to a year into the private lives of individuals.
The third thing that happened was the emergence of a whistleblowing FBI agent named Colleen Rowley, who on May 21 sent an open letter to FBI Director Gary Mueller outlining a series of bureaucratic oversights that led to a failure to pursue valid leads on terrorist activity prior to September 11. Rowley would eventually testify before Congress on June 6 and 7– in other words, on the Thursday and Friday before news of Padilla’s arrest was made public.
What Rowley was alleging was that American field intelligence agents were working fine as is (among other things, Rowley described her Minneapolis office’s frantic attempts to obtain permission to arrest would-be shoe-bomber Zacarias Moussaoui as early as August, 2001) , and that the real security gaps were caused by bureaucratic incompetence in the agency’s upper echelons. Her testimony, which made front-page headlines all across America, directly contradicted the earlier assertions by Ashcroft that what was needed were vastly expanded police powers of the type he proposed in his May 30 announcement.
BEAST readers may recall that at the end of that week of June 7, and throughout that weekend of June 8-9, the Bush administration briefly came under fire for apparently failing to act in the face of serious terrorist threats last summer.
All of that ended when, on June 10, John Ashcroft announced from Moscow that the United States had Padilla in custody. On the heels of accusations that it had previously failed to prevent major acts of terrorism, the Bush administration was suddenly announcing… that it just had prevented a major act of terrorism.
It was significant that the foiled plot Ashcroft revealed involved a weapon far worse than a jetliner crashing into a skyscraper; the prevention of a radioactive “dirty bomb” explosion suddenly turned, as Joseph Heller might have called it, the black eye of Rowley into a big fat feather in the administration’s cap. In the blink of an eye, the Rowley story disappeared from the newspapers.
It may seem gratuitous to point out that just thirteen years before, George W. Bush’s father waved the face of a menacing-looking black inmate named Willie Horton at voters at the very moment his poll numbers seemingly approached the point of no return. But I don’t think it is. People like John Ashcroft know exactly what they’re doing when hand out a grainy mugshot of a convicted Puerto Rican murderer to the national press, and announce that this is the face that was plotting to nuke Washington. Not the kind of thing that is going to inspire a reasoned response from most middle-class Americans.
It also may seem gratuitous to point out that a) Bush’s father’s administration once withheld documents from Iran-Contra prosecutors on the grounds that they would compromise national security b) Dick Cheney has withheld documents pertaining to the Enron story on the grounds that they would compromise national security, and c) that Bush himself withheld what it said was proof of Osama bin Laden’s guilt in the Sept. 11 bombings, on the grounds that it would compromise national security. But I don’t think so here, either.
On June 14, the Bush administration announced that Padilla– an American citizen– would not be tried in a criminal court, or even given a military tribunal. The reason? Evidence offered in public might compromise national security. If it looks like a duck, and acts like a duck, it’s probably a duck– and the administration’s decision not to try Padilla looked very much like an excuse to avoid admission that there was not much in the way of evidence against their suspect.
Padilla, meanwhile, had been declared an “enemy combatant” by Bush on June 9, and moved from New York to a military detention center at the Charleston Naval Weapons center in South Carolina. Soon after his detention became a public matter, the administration issued a series of seemingly insane statements about their intentions regarding their American suspect.
Donald Rumsfeld came right and made a flat announcement: “We’re not interested in trying him at this time.” Other Bush spokesmen told reporters that Padilla would remain in jail “until we’re done with Al-Qaeda.” Due process, the right to face one’s accuser, all of this was tossed out the window in this series of alarmingly casual statements by Bush officials.
This unprecedented rollback in civil rights scored scarcely a blip in the national media, however. About the strongest statement that the press could muster on the matter was a blase filler line like this one at the end of a June 11 Reuters story:
“Civil rights groups have criticized the way the government was treating [Padilla].”
The lack of uproar over Padilla’s detention was presumably due to the fact that the suspect himself appeared impossible to sympathize with; it was hard to think of Padilla’s experience applying to any of us, since none of us were flying around the world, meeting with Al-Qaeda officials, and plotting to explode radioactive bombs.
Then again, maybe Padilla wasn’t, either. Just days after his detention was made public, the government quietly leaked word through a number of channels that the Padilla threat was maybe not all it was cracked up to be.
On June 11, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz even told CBS: “I don’t think there was actually a plot beyond some fairly loose talk.”
A day later, government officials admitted that they had no physical evidence linking Padilla to a bomb plot– no bomb materials or even documented attempts to obtain bomb materials, no diagrams, not even a chemistry textbook.
Soon after that, it came out that most of the government’s case against Padilla rested on information given to them by Abu Zubaydah, a former Al-Qaeda operative who had been feeding U.S. investigators with a steady string of warnings and doomsday predictions– none of which ever came to pass– ever since his capture in late March. Zubaydah’s status as a Guantanomo songbird had become the stuff of such legend that even before the news of the Padilla’s arrest was made public, observers began to question the information he was feeding us.
Even a dumb reactionary glossy like Time magazine was confident enough to be publicly skeptical of Zubdayah. Here is that magazine’s assessment of him on May 24, two weeks before the Padilla story broke:
“How do we know if he’s telling us the truth? This is, after all, Zubaydah’s last dance: as long as he keeps tossing out things, stringing us along, he’s useful, privileged, treated with respect by his interrogators, like a Cold War era captured agent. Once that’s no longer true, his life will turn very, very nasty. Zubaydah has every reason to lie, to throw his captors off the trail, to sow fear and doubt, to poke the U.S. so that his al-Qaeda fellows can observe how we react.”
The Bush administration was now enthusiastically taking the word of admitted Al-Qaeda operatives to throw Americans in jail.
The flimsiness of the case against Padilla did not make the papers much. Not that it would have mattered. They could have given both sides of that story equal time, and Padilla still would have lost out. “Case Against Padilla Called ‘Circumstantial’” is no match, effect-wise, for “Suspect in Dirty-Bomb Plot Held.” Once you let a genie like that out of the bottle, you can’t ever get it back in, even if you want to. And the national press made it clear that nobody wanted to.
The political benefits provided to the Bush administration by the Padilla business were both obvious and not so obvious. The immediate benefit, obviously, was in defusing the Rowley story. But a more abstract benefit was Padilla’s usefulness in providing another excuse to expand police powers. I would bet the Rigas family’s offshore holdings that before this year is over, the Bush administration will use the Padilla story to make an explicit connection between urban American street gangs (read: poor nonwhite criminals) and terrorism.
The mere thought of this should send chills up every black or Hispanic spine in America. After 9/11, the government now has the power, the mandate, and the obvious inclination to make the drug war look like a silly frat prank. And as long as every network and 500 newspapers are lining up to help the cause, they will be unstoppable.
Where do you draw the line? How do you define the difference between a foreign enemy and an American with rights? The answer is that, after Jose Padilla, there is no line anymore– and no one now can really pinpoint when and how it disappeared, since none of our journalists covered its passing.