WASHINGTON – An American citizen held incommunicado by the military for more than a year as an alleged Al Qaeda (search) supporter will be allowed to see a lawyer, the Pentagon said Wednesday.
But one of Jose Padilla's (search) lawyers says the government says it will monitor any meetings at the Navy brig in Charleston, S.C.
That arrangement "would make it impossible to have an attorney-client conversation," said lawyer Andrew Patel.
No meeting has been scheduled.
The Bush administration says Padilla, working under a senior Al Qaeda operative in Pakistan, plotted to detonate a radioactive dirty bomb in the United States.
In a statement, the Pentagon said it had determined that providing Padilla access to a lawyer would not compromise national security or interfere with efforts to use him as an intelligence source.
Still, the Pentagon maintained it was not required to let him speak with counsel.
"Such access is not required by domestic or international law and should not be treated as a precedent," the statement said.
Patel said Padilla's legal team was reviewing the conditions offered by the government.
"It's a step in the right direction," he said. "It's not what they would like people to believe that it is."
A Human Rights First organization lawyer who also worked on the case, Jonathan Freiman, said it "a transparent maneuver" meant to undermine Padilla's arguments on the eve of Supreme Court consideration.
He said restrictions would make it like a humanitarian visit.
"His lawyers might as well be from the Red Cross," Freiman said. "All they can do is see him, see how he's been treated."
Padilla's lawyers have challenged the government's right to hold him indefinitely, without charges or trial, as a violation of his rights as a U.S. citizen. The government, meanwhile, calls him an enemy combatant who can be held for the duration of the war on terrorism.
The Bush administration lost the case in federal court and wants the Supreme Court to step in. In December, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in a 2-1 ruling, ordered Padilla released from military custody unless the government charges him.
That ruling is on hold while the Supreme Court considers taking the case. A decision on that point may come as early as this month.
The administration also argues that it may keep such prisoners incommunicado, without access to lawyers or other outsiders. Even so, the government recently allowed a lawyer to visit Yaser Esam Hamdi, another American citizen held in South Carolina.
Hamdi is alleged to be a Taliban foot soldier picked up during fighting in Afghanistan shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
The Supreme Court has already agreed to hear Hamdi's appeal, filed without his knowledge by an outside lawyer. The government won the Hamdi case in lower courts, and the Supreme Court could now agree to hear both cases side by side.
Also Wednesday, the administration filed additional legal papers in the Padilla case at the high court. Solicitor General Theodore Olson described the lower court's ruling as fundamentally flawed.
"There is no question that the opinion raises issues of extraordinary national significance requiring this court's review," he wrote.
Olson specifically asked the court to hear the case on the same day it hears the Hamdi case. Oral arguments in the Hamdi case are to take place sometime in April.
Hearing the cases at once could set up a ruling by summer on whether the president's wartime powers allow the open-ended detention of American citizens, whether captured at home or abroad.
The FBI arrested Padilla, a former gang member from Chicago, in May 2002, as we was arriving in his hometown from overseas. Counterterrorism officials contended he was in the United States to scout targets for attacks, and was working for Abu Zubaydah (search), a senior Al Qaeda planner who has since been captured.
Padilla met with one of his lawyers before he was transferred to military custody in June of that year.
The officials also said he worked on building a dirty bomb, a device that would use conventional explosives to disperse radioactive materials over a wide area.