Now that the U.S. has foiled a plot to detonate a radioactive bomb on U.S. soil, any chance that the New York Times, Amnesty International, the ACLU, or sundry crusading judges will grasp that we’re fighting for our survival? Probably not. But the arrest and detention of Jose Padilla, a former Chicago gang thug and wannabe al Qaida dirty bomber, reveals the absolute necessity for security measures taken after September 11—measures that the liberal media, left-wing human-rights groups, and federal judiciary have incessantly attacked as bigoted and totalitarian.
Since his arrest on May 8 at O’Hare Airport with thousands of dollars in cash and dozens of ideas about killing Americans gleaned from al Qaida operatives in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Brooklyn-born Padilla had been held secretly at the Metropolitan Corrections Center in Manhattan for a month and then transferred to a Navy jail in Charleston, South Carolina. Such secret detentions—about 40 terrorist suspects are now incarcerated in high security jails in Manhattan—have received unrelenting criticism from rights groups and the liberal press, which just can’t understand why we would be holding anyone without announcing to the world that we have them. (Never mind that Padilla and his cronies were free to call Amnesty International or the New York Times at any point to publicize their presence in jail.) Furthermore, whined the critics, just how dangerous can these detainees be, since the government has charged few of them with crimes?
Well, now we know why the U.S. is holding suspects—mostly illegal aliens—in secret detention: to get as much information as we can from them before alerting al Qaida to their arrest. Earth to the ACLU and the Times: there are people like Padilla in the world—some of whom we’re holding in detention—who want to destroy us. Letting their colleagues know that we have them, and thus potentially how we got them, only strengthens our enemies’ hands.
Padilla’s detention also took advantage of a vital enforcement power recently eviscerated by a federal judge. Until this weekend, he was being held as a material witness to the grand jury currently investigating the September 11 attacks in Manhattan. But in a totally unprecedented reading of the material witness statute, New York Judge Shira A. Scheindlin declared on April 30 that the government may not detain witnesses to a grand jury who are flight or security risks. Her reasoning? A grand jury investigating crime or terrorism is not a “criminal proceeding,” she declared preposterously.
It was likely the prod of Judge Scheindlin’s destructive ruling that led the government to declare Padilla an enemy combatant this weekend. Since under Scheindlin’s decision, he could no longer be held as a material witness, the government was desperate to preserve its right to question him for vital counter-terrorism information without formally charging him with a crime. A criminal charge against Padilla or any other terrorist suspect would inevitably reveal crucial intelligence sources that al Qaida is hungry to learn about, and cloak suspects with procedural rights that could hinder the search for knowledge to prevent future attacks. Most likely the government also would have preferred to keep his detention secret for a while longer, but Judge Scheindlin forced its hand.
But Padilla’s new status as enemy combatant raises the anomaly of a prisoner with no tribune to hear his case, since the military tribunals authorized after September 11 for terrorism may not hear cases of American citizens. This limitation is another gift from our misguided civil libertarians. Thus, as the government dodges one trap set by doctrinaire anti-establishment liberals, who refuse to recognize that America’s security needs have changed after September 11, it falls into another.
Just yesterday, in fact, before learning of Padilla’s plot, the New York Times was railing against the detention and interrogation of another possible American-born terrorist, Yasser Esam Hamdi, as well as calling for the release of the names and locations of all remaining terrorist detainees, and public deportation trials of illegal aliens picked up after September 11. Maybe the revelation of Padilla’s radioactive bombing plans will be a wake-up call to the Times and left-wing advocacy groups to stop portraying the government’s reasonable efforts to thwart future attacks as a Republican plot to overthrow the Constitution. Maybe these self-righteous critics might acknowledge that the highest constitutional duty of the government is to protect the country from destruction and that we are fighting a war, not merely preparing for a few inconsequential criminal trials.
But don’t count on it.