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Tuesday, May 21, 2024 | Back issues
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Terror Plotter Can’t Fight ‘Enemy Combatant’ Status

(CN) - Federal authorities did not misuse the enemy combatant designation to detain an American citizen who was later convicted of a "dirty bomb" plot, the 4th Circuit ruled.

Jose Padilla was labeled an enemy combatant with close ties to al-Qaida in May 2002 when authorities picked him up at Chicago's O'Hare airport on a flight from Pakistan via Switzerland.

After several weeks of detention, authorities transferred the Brooklyn-born suspect to a Navy brig where he underwent two years of extensive interrogation without the benefit of counsel, family or friends. Padilla then spent another year and a half in federal custody as various courts weighed in on his rights.

Government officials said Padilla had been convicted of murder in the past and planned to build a dirty bomb that he would detonate in the United States. After prosecutors finally brought federal conspiracy charges in 2006, a Miami jury convicted Padilla the following year and he was sentenced to more than 17 years in prison.

Padilla has claimed that he was tortured during the detention and that he was illegally held as an enemy combatant, rather than as a citizen.

But U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel ruled on Feb. 17 that Padilla failed to establish the unlawfulness of his detention as an enemy combatant. The Richmond, Va.-based federal appeals court rejected Padilla's appeal Monday.

Padilla cannot use a lawsuit seeking monetary damages to review sensitive military decisions during a time of war, according to the 39-page decision.

"Padilla's proposed litigation risks interference with military and intelligence operations on a wide scale," Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson wrote for a three-judge panel. "Any defense to Padilla's claims - which effectively challenge the whole of the government's detainee policy - could require current and former officials, both military and civilian, to testify as to the rationale of that policy."

Padilla initially named 61 defendants, but revised it to seven, including former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, current Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and two former commanders of the Navy brig.

The court also noted that it is not the the role of the judiciary to review military decisions.

"This is a case in which the political branches, exercising powers explicitly assigned them by our Constitution, formulated policies with profound implications for national security," Wilkinson wrote. "One may agree or not agree with those policies. One may debate whether they were or were not the most effective counterterrorism strategy. But the forum for such debates is not the civil cause of action pressed in the case at bar."

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