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Shoe Bomber Case Resurfaces, Fuels National Security Debate

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In this Dec. 22, 2001 file photo, Richard Reid is transported in a car from Massachusetts State Police barracks at Logan International Airport in Boston. (AP)

Five months ago, British shoe bomber Richard Reid, who is serving a life sentence for his failed attempt in 2001 to blow up a trans-Atlantic airliner, was moved out of the isolation wing at the Supermax prison in Colorado -- prompting some conservative lawmakers to suggest that the Obama administration is making it possible for the self-proclaimed Al Qaeda terrorist to radicalize his fellow prisoners.

Critics said the move was part of what they say is a troubling pattern in the administration to treat terrorists with kid gloves.

"This decision is another product of the Obama administration's alarming effort to treat terrorist killers like everyday common criminals," said Stephen Miller, a spokesman for Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee and a strong critic of the president's national security policies.

"It raises troubling questions about how terrorists like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed will be treated once they too enter our civilian justice system," he said. "As Sen. Sessions has said, the Obama administration is returning America to the law enforcement approach that failed us on 9/11."

But a Justice Department scoffed at that notion, calling it "absolute nonsense."

"The career men and women of the Justice Department have prosecuted hundreds of terrorists," DOJ spokesman Dean Boyd told FoxNews.com. "This administration is committed not only to using the justice system as a counterterrorism tool, but the military tribunals ... and all tools in fighting the war on Al Qaeda."

Boyd added in a written statement that the Bureau of Prisons "houses the most dangerous international terrorists under the most restrictive conditions to ensure that they cannot influence others, gain reinforcing prestige, or use others to send or receive messages.

"There are more than 340 convicted international and domestic terrorists currently in Bureau of Prisons custody, including Richard Reid as well as those responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa."

Reid's case has recaptured the spotlight following the failed bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day and the debate over the Obama administration's decision to try the Nigerian suspect in the case, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, in a civilian court instead of a military tribunal.

Supporters of that policy have pointed to the Bush administration's decision to try Reid in a federal court, where he pleaded guilty in 2003 to trying to blow up a jumbo jet in late 2001 with explosives in his shoes.

Reid was placed under tight restrictions known as Special Administrative Measures (SAMs) that were renewed each year on the ground that his interactions with others posed a "substantial risk" of resulting in death or serious injury to them.

But last June Attorney General Eric Holder allowed the security directives to expire following a 2007 civil lawsuit by Reid in which he claimed that SAMs violated his First Amendment right of free speech and free exercise of religion.

He said the restrictions prevented him from practicing his Sunni Muslim faith or to learn Arabic, order books and magazines, watch television news and speak to anyone except his family and lawyers.

He was moved out of isolation in August, but he was subjected to new restrictions that barred him from writing to anyone except his immediate family and lawyer.

Mike Sullivan, the former U.S. attorney for Massachusetts who prosecuted Reid, said moving him out of isolation poses a risk.

"If he's in general population, it's not unusual that he could radicalize" others," Sullivan said. "Reid, if you look at him, he became radicalized because of contacts in the U.K. There is clear evidence that Al Qaeda uses inmates to recruit others to their radical positions."

A spokesman with the Bureau of Prisons said he could not specify whether Reid is in general population; only that his conditions have changed and he is confined at the Supermax prison.

Boyd said Reid's communications, including mail and phone calls, are monitored by prison guards and that he can interact only with individuals approved by the Bureau of Prisons. His visiting rights are limited and subject to restrictions, and he can receive news publications only after they are reviewed by authorities.

"Contrary to suggestions in the media, Reid is not allowed to freely roam the halls of Supermax," Boyd said in a written statement. "His status is closely monitored and should any of his communications or contacts pose a potential threat to persons, the Justice Department may direct the Bureau of Prisons to renew SAMs on him."

Reid told a court that he was still being prevented from studying his religion and that he worried that the special limits could be reimposed at any time.

The Justice Department argued that the court should dismiss Reid's lawsuit because the special limits had been lifted and that he must initiate a new petition to challenge the new restrictions.

On Tuesday, a judge sided with the Obama administration and rejected Reid's request for looser restrictions.

Reid can appeal the decision.