Ashcroft Hypes a Dirty Bomber

In announcing this week the arrest of a Chicago-area man for allegedly plotting to set off a radiological bomb, Attorney General John Ashcroft at last did what civil-rights activists and lawyers have been demanding for months: he stood up and named someone caught in his post-Sept. 11 dragnet.

Abdullah al Muhajir, formerly Jose Padilla, was nabbed May 8. Held without any formal charges, the prisoner has been turned over to the military as an “enemy combatant”—or so the attorney general trumpets. Ashcroft called him an Osama bin Laden operative with plans to attack Washington, D.C.; claimed he traveled to Pakistan and Afghanistan for al-Qaida training; and said the government had “multiple independent and corroborating sources” for this info.

Muhajir reportedly was kept for a time as a material witness under the supervision of a federal judge. At one point, federal officials suggested, he had a lawyer and proceedings were being conducted in secret. The mystery deepened with news accounts Tuesday that Muhajir had been handed over to the military because he wouldn't waive his rights and talk to a grand jury in New York.

It's hard to believe anyone in Muhajir's position would waive his rights, and anyhow, a suspect need not appear before a grand jury for it to indict him. This chain of events raises the possibility that the government does not have the facts to back up a court case. With federal courts clamping down on the use of material-witness status to retain detainees, law enforcement punted Muhajir over to the military.

If Ashcroft has really uncovered a plot of the horrible dimensions he is suggesting, then surely he can openly charge Muhajir and place him on trial. If we are indeed threatened with death by radiological bomb, then the least we can expect from the attorney general is the facts, not vague frightening accusations, which unfortunately have been the stuff of Ashcroft's entire reign.

The same goes for the hundreds of other detainees, now locked anonymously in U.S. jails. Who are these people, and what are they charged with? It seems that Ashcroft is only willing to name names when it benefits his battered reputation as a crime fighter.

For conservatives long bent on replacing the noxious socialistic residue of the New Deal with smaller, less obtrusive government, George Bush's proposed cabinet-level department of homeland security must pose a quandary.

Here is their very own president abandoning the quest for smaller government in favor of a growing federal bureaucracy. He wants thousands more FBI special agents to not only pore over electronic communications in search of the furtive terrorist, but also to install Trojan-horse software on home computers so they can root out porn addicts and people with unsavory, anti-American thoughts. Not to mention the repackaging of various government functions in a hastily drawn-up, sprawling new entity that would pull together such disparate fiefdoms as the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, immigration control, and the lifesaving Coast Guard.

From the conservative point of view, however, a little opportunism may be in order. Perhaps they're howling less than expected because the Homeland Security Department would finally replace the hated welfare state with a smoothly calibrated police one. If you're stopped for speeding, the new federal force could quickly scan your fingerprints for previous criminal activity. It could check out whether you're a welfare cheat or your credit is good, and it could easily read your most recent e-mail to your lover.

Even if a few smaller-government types squawk, there's one group that must be jumping for joy: the Christian fundamentalists. Their interests square with Bush's, in that a powerful, central police state could implement the will of God in a way that can't be achieved through what are quaintly referred to these days as “faith based” initiatives. Prominent among the fundamentalists' concerns is the organization of society around sex so as to reinforce the standard of the decaying male-run family. They want to reach down into every bedroom and set the rules of who has sex when, where and with whom.

There is nothing new about this. Policing sexual practices long has been the province of American government when it comes to setting welfare rules, providing food stamps, handing out marriage licenses, writing insurance policies, determining adoption regulations, providing tax breaks, etc. Now domestic programs will be placed within the parameters of the search for terrorists, which will be conducted by a police force with the zeal of a Coleen Rowley. The Minnesota FBI agent wanted to get at the man who may turn out to have been part of the Sept. 11 hijack team. Rowley was famously stymied by the bureaucracy, and now she is asking the FBI to strip away constitutional restraints and clear the path for more assertive local policing.

If the recent meanderings within the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, are any indication of what's to come, there's little point in seeking a defense of civil rights in the federal courts. During a hearing on whether a U.S. citizen imprisoned as a member of the Taliban should be allowed to see a lawyer, Chief Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson wondered if that might be a bad idea, since it might stop him from talking to government interrogators.

The story goes like this: Yasser Esam Hamdi is a U.S. citizen, born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, while his parents were on a brief study-abroad program. He has lived in Saudi Arabia virtually his whole life.

According to Hamdi's parents, their son fell into this mess when, following the example of many of his Saudi peers, he took a summer trip to Pakistan and went from there to Afghanistan. This rite of passage began in the 1980s, when Gulf Arabs allied themselves with the U.S. against the Soviet forces invading Afghanistan.

Hamdi was captured by the Northern Alliance in the battle for Mazar-i-Sharif. His legal adviser claims the U.S.-backed fighters were eager to cash in on rewards for the capture of al-Qaida members, and thus traded him to the Americans for money.

Hamdi has been held incommunicado in solitary confinement at the Norfolk U.S. Navy brig since April 5. Frank W. Dunham Jr., a Virginia public defender appointed to represent Hamdi, asked the Navy to let him interview Hamdi in order to see whether he was too poor to provide for his own defense. The Pentagon ignored Dunham. So he sued Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. A federal magistrate initially approved Dunham's right to visit the prisoner, but before the meeting could take place, the government jumped in and warned the Fourth Circuit that Hamdi might try to send messages to other terrorists through his unsuspecting counsel.

Of more immediate concern, though, according to an attorney from the solicitor general's office, was that a visit might interrupt the government's interrogation of the prisoner. Chief Judge Wilkinson “asked me if I thought that was true,” Dunham said, expressing shock. “He said, 'If he's given a lawyer, don't you think he'd stop talking to the federal agents?'”

Additional reporting by Joshua Hersh, Caroline Ragon, Cassandra Lewis and Gabrielle Jackson.

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