WASHINGTON – The government will hold suspected American terrorist Jose Padilla indefinitely and will not bring him before a military tribunal, according to congressional and U.S. officials.
Justice officials made their case in a closed meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee, arguing the United States has the legal power to hold Padilla until President Bush decides the war against terrorism is over.
"They say it's not punitive, it's just purely prevention to stop him from attacking us," said one congressional official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "He's going to stay in the can until we're through with Al Qaeda."
Government officials had said there were no plans to put Padilla before a tribunal; officials told the Judiciary Committee on Thursday that the decision is now final.
During the briefing, the Justice Department also sought to allay concerns about the legal implications of Padilla's citizenship.
Padilla, a Muslim convert and former Chicago gang member, is being held by the military. He's accused of being part of a plot to detonate a radiological weapon — or "dirty bomb" — in the United States.
He worked out of Lahore, Pakistan, and twice met with senior Al Qaeda operatives in Karachi in March, government officials have said. During the meetings, Padilla and the others are alleged to have discussed the radiological weapon plot, as well as proposals to bomb gas stations and hotel rooms.
In the committee briefing Thursday, government officials said that previous court cases, including a 1942 Supreme Court case, show that even citizens can qualify as "enemy combatants" — the legal term the Justice Department argues allows a person to be held without trial. An American captured with German saboteurs in 1946 was executed under the ruling.
The government also told committee members that Padilla fits all of the criteria of an enemy combatant because he met with a senior Al Qaeda official, learned how to blow up a dirty bomb, got training and financing and then came to the United States with the intent to do harm.
The Justice Department told the committee that the executive branch alone has the power to decide when a person qualifies as a combatant, the U.S. official said. Officials decided against holding a criminal trial for Padilla because it might reveal intelligence sources.
Other details about Padilla's background surfaced Thursday.
The Florida mosque where Padilla worshipped sometime between 1995 and 1997 was once linked to a group accused by the Bush administration of financing a terrorist organization, state records show.
Padilla, 31, attended prayer services and studied the Quran at Masjid Al-Iman in Fort Lauderdale in the months before his departure to study overseas in late 1998, former associates said.
According to state records, Raed Awad, the mosque's prayer leader, or imam, at the time served as the chief fund-raiser in Florida for The Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development.
The Texas-based Muslim charity's offices were raided and shuttered by the Treasury Department in December as part of a terrorism investigation. The Bush administration has linked the charity to the Islamic militant group Hamas.
Holy Land officials have denied supporting terrorism, saying it raises funds for humanitarian and disaster relief. The foundation has sued the government, contesting the Bush administration's decision to freeze its assets and claiming it has been falsely accused.