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Legality of al Muhajir Detention Questioned - 2002-06-11

The American suspected of plotting with al-Qaida to detonate a so-called radioactive 'dirty bomb' now finds himself in an unusual legal limbo. The suspect, Abdullah al Muhajir, is being held by the U.S. military and could be held indefinitely. Civil liberties groups are already questioning the legal basis for his detention.

Bush administration officials continue to portray Abdullah al Muhajir as a dangerous al-Qaida operative who may have been on a trip to check out possible U.S. targets when he was arrested in Chicago May 8.

At the White House, President Bush said Mr. al Muhajir, formerly known as Jose Padilla, was just one of several suspected terrorists now in U.S. custody. "We will run down every lead, every hint," he said. "This guy Padilla is a bad guy and he is where he needs to be, detained."

U.S. officials consider Abdullah al Muhajir an unlawful enemy combatant and he is being held at a U.S. Navy facility in South Carolina for questioning.

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz discussed his case on NBC's Today program. "This man is a very dangerous man," he said. "He started out in this country as a petty criminal. Somewhere along the way he got converted to being something else and out in Pakistan and Afghanistan he was working on plots to do the most horrendous kinds of things in this country."

Government lawyers have cited a 1942 Supreme Court case that they say allows them to hold an American citizen in military custody indefinitely without being charged. But under the rules established by President Bush, Mr. al Muhajir cannot be tried by a military tribunal because he is a U.S. citizen and only non-citizens can be brought before a tribunal.

Once again, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. "We are holding him now as an enemy combatant and as an enemy combatant he is the same as any other enemy combatant," he said. "If it came to a point of prosecution, he would have to go back into the civil courts."

But some civil liberties groups are questioning the government's right to indefinitely hold an American citizen in military custody.

A legal challenge will eventually be filed on Mr. al Muhajir's behalf, predicts David Cole, a constitutional law professor at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington. "The real difficulty, of course, is that because the government is barring anyone from talking to Mr. Padilla, including any lawyer from talking to Mr. Padilla, it is very hard for a lawyer to represent Mr. Padilla without even being able to talk to him," said Mr. Cole.

Another suspect in a similar situation is Yaser Esam Hamdi, a Saudi student captured in Afghanistan who is being held along with other suspected al-Qaida detainees at a U.S. naval base in Cuba. Mr. Hamdi was born in the United States and claims to be a U.S. citizen.

Law professor David Cole says he is concerned that the Bush administration threatens to trample some civil liberties as it attempts to make the United States more secure from terrorist attacks. "What troubles me is the way in which we have often ... targeted foreign citizens and essentially said, we are willing to trade off their liberties for our security," he said. He said he is also troubled by "the kind of knee-jerk way in which many of these liberties are taken away, as if to suggest that if we take away your liberties, you will be more secure."

For the moment, though, a majority of the American public seems more concerned with safety. A new Gallup poll indicates that four in five (80 percent) Americans would be willing to give up some freedoms in order to feel more secure from terrorist attacks.