On Jose Padilla, a blink and a bait-and-switch

The White House avoids a Supreme Court showdown by charging Jose Padilla with a crime -- but not the one for which he has been held.

Published November 22, 2005 4:29PM (EST)

Remember how Jose Padilla was supposed to have been plotting to build and detonate a "dirty bomb" in the United States? Then remember how he was supposed to have been training to use natural gas to blow up apartment buildings in the United States?

Never mind.

Seeking to avoid a Supreme Court showdown it was probably going to lose, the Justice Department just announced that it is taking Padilla out of Defense Department custody and moving him into the criminal justice system. "Under the president's directive, he is no longer being detained by the Department of Defense as an 'enemy combatant,'" Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said at a press conference this morning. Instead, Gonzales said, Padilla has been indicted in a federal court in Miami on charges that he conspired to "murder, kidnap and maim" people outside of the United States.

While that's a serious criminal charge, it isn't the basis on which the Bush administration has been holding Padilla -- an American citizen -- in custody for the last three years. When Padilla was seized in 2002, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft held a press conference in which he announced that the United States had "disrupted an unfolding terrorist plot to attack the United States by exploding a radioactive 'dirty bomb.'"

That's an easy allegation to make, especially when you can keep the man you're charging locked up and away from the checks and balances of the criminal justice system. But with the Padilla case headed back to the Supreme Court, where it's fairly clear that a majority of the justices wouldn't cotton to the indefinite detention of a U.S. citizen, the Bush administration realized that it was going to have to release Padilla or charge him with a crime. So why wasn't the crime charged the same one Ashcroft identified in 2002? Why wasn't it the apartment plot story the administration spread in 2004? Gonzales was a man with few answers today, insisting that court rules and other restrictions prohibited him from talking about anything that isn't in the indictment.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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