It is hard to disagree with the jury's guilty verdict against Jose Padilla, the accused, but never formally charged, dirty bomber. But it would be a mistake to see it as a vindication for the Bush administration's serial abuse of the American legal system in the name of fighting terrorism.
On the way to this verdict, the government repeatedly trampled on the Constitution, and its prosecution of Mr. Padilla was so cynical and inept that the crime he was convicted of - conspiracy to commit terrorism overseas - bears no relation to the ambitious plot to wreak mass destruction inside the United States, which the Justice Department first loudly proclaimed. Even with the guilty verdict, this conviction remains a shining example of how not to prosecute terrorism cases.
When Mr. Padilla was arrested in 2002, the government said he was an Al Qaeda operative who had plotted to detonate a radioactive dirty bomb inside the United States. Mr. Padilla, who is an American citizen, should have been charged as a criminal and put on trial in a civilian court. Instead, President Bush declared him an "enemy combatant" and kept him in a Navy brig for more than three years.
The administration's insistence that it had the right to hold Mr. Padilla indefinitely - simply on the president's word - was its first outrageous act in the case, but hardly its last. Mr. Padilla was kept in a small isolation cell, and when he left that cell he was blindfolded and his ears were covered. He was denied access to a lawyer even when he was being questioned.
The administration also insisted that the courts had no right to second-guess its actions. It was only after the Supreme Court appeared poised last year to use Mr. Padilla's case to decide whether indefinite detention of an American citizen violates the Constitution, that the White House suddenly decided to give him a civilian trial. It was obvious that the administration was trying to game the legal system and insulate itself from Supreme Court review. J. Michael Luttig, a federal appeals court judge who heard Mr. Padilla's case, warned about the consequences "for the government's credibility before the courts in litigation."
The administration is already claiming victory, but the result in Mr. Padilla's case is in many ways a mess. He will likely never be brought to trial on the dirty-bomb plot, a much publicized charge that cries out for resolution. (In another move worthy of Alice in Wonderland, the government is holding another prisoner in Guantánamo, Binyam Mohamed, because he was accused of conspiring with Mr. Padilla in the dirty-bomb plot for which Mr. Padilla was never charged.) There is also the danger that Mr. Padilla's conviction will be reversed on appeal because of his alleged mistreatment before trial. In hailing the verdict yesterday, a White House spokesman thanked the jury for "upholding a core American principle of impartial justice for all." It is a remarkable statement, since the administration did everything it could to keep Mr. Padilla away from a jury and deny him impartial justice.
After all that, there was still some good news yesterday: a would-be terrorist will be going to jail. And the Bush administration was forced, grudgingly and only at the very end, to provide him with the rights guaranteed by the Constitution.
© 2007 The New York Times