WASHINGTON – "Dirty bomb" suspect Jose Padilla has been indicted by a Miami federal grand jury on criminal charges that he conspired to "murder, kidnap and maim" people overseas.
The indicment naming Padilla and four others was unsealed Tuesday and returned by a grand jury last Thursday. While the charges allege Padilla was part of a U.S.-based terrorism conspiracy, they do not include the government's earlier allegations that he planned to carry out attacks in America.
"We believe it is the appropriate thing to do," Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said during a news conference in Washington Tuesday when announcing the charges.
The indictment says Padilla planned various overseas trips to plan terror operations and sent money and assets abroad from the United States.
"This investigation has been underway for quite a while here," Gonzales said. "If convicted of these charges, he could face a sentence of life in prison."
Gonzales also noted that certain provisions of the Patriot Act aided the investigation.
"By tearing down the artificial wall that would have prevented this kind of investigation in the past, we're able to bring these terrorists to justice," Gonzales said.
Padilla, a Brooklyn-born Muslim convert, has been held as an "enemy combatant" in Defense Department custody for more than three years. The Bush administration had resisted calls to charge and try him in civilian courts.
Gonzales said Padilla's previous status as an "enemy combatant" has no legal ramifications for the criminal charges. President Bush has ordered that custody of Padilla be transferred from the Defense Department to the Justice Department.
When asked what caused the administration to change Padilla's status from an enemy combatant, Gonzales replied: "The president says that we're going to use all available tools to deal with this new kind of enemy, to deal with this terrorism threat against America and America's friends and allies. ... We take each individual, each case, case by case."
"We've looked at the facts involved here, and we believe it is appropriate to bring these charges against Mr. Padilla," Gonzales added.
For the time being, the indictment avoids a Supreme Court showdown over how long the government could hold a U.S. citizen without charges. Padilla's lawyers had asked justices to review his case last month, and the Bush administration was facing a deadline next Monday for filing its legal arguments. The high court had been asked to decide when and for how long the government can jail Americans in military prisons.
"The 'evidence' the government has offered against Padilla over the past three years consists of double and triple hearsay from secret witnesses, along with information allegedly obtained from Padilla himself during his two years of incommunicado interrogation," his lawyers said in their earlier appeal.
Padilla lawyer Donna Newman told FOX News on Tuesday that the charges in many ways are a vindication of Padilla's Constitutional rights to due process, but the lawyer wouldn't rule out the possibility that the case could still go to the high court.
Duke University law professor Scott Silliman, who specializes in national security, said the indictment bodes well for the administration.
"They're avoiding what the Supreme Court would say about American citizens. That's an issue the administration did not want to face," Silliman said. "There's no way that the Supreme Court would have ducked this issue."
Padilla has been held at a Navy brig in South Carolina. Following the indictment, which was handed up last Thursday, President Bush sent a memo to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ordering Padilla transferred to the federal detention facility in Miami.
The Bush administration has said Padilla, a former Chicago gang member, sought to blow up hotels and apartment buildings in the United States and planned an attack with a "dirty bomb" radiological device.
Padilla was arrested at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport in 2002 after returning from Pakistan. The federal government has said he was trained in weapons and explosives by members of Al Qaeda.
Although the Justice Department has said that Padilla was readying attacks in the United States, the charges against him and four others allege they were part of a conspiracy to murder, kidnap and maim persons in a foreign country, and a conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists abroad.
The other defendants are: Adham Amin Hassoun, Mohammed Hesham Youssef, Kifah Wael Jayyousi, and Kassem Daher. Hassoun also was indicted on eight additional charges, including perjury, obstruction of justice and illegal firearm possession.
Hassoun, a Palestinian computer programmer who moved to Florida in 1989, was arrested in June 2002 for allegedly overstaying his student visa. Prosecutors previously described him as a former associate of Padilla.
The 31-page indictment says all five defendants were members of a so-called North American support cell that was established to aid violent jihad in order to establish a Caliphate, or a state governed by strict Islamic law.
The indictment says the five conspired, at times on U.S. soil, with others to commit murder and other crimes, although the object of the conspiracy was to commit violent jihad outside the borders of the United States.
The indictment says the men used front organizations and special codes to conceal their efforts to recruit "mujahideen warriors," raise money to support the training of the warriors, provide communications equipment, and publish documents encouraging jihad.
While the narrative begins in October 1993, Padilla doesn't enter the picture described in the indictment until April 17, 1996, when prosecutors believe he obtained a U.S. passport in Miami. A month later, two of the other defendants "discuss their intentions to 'prepare' Padilla and send him to Egypt," the indictment states.
The men continued planning and raising money in the U.S., Egypt and other countries, until on or about July 28, 1997, Hassoun "asked Padilla if he was 'ready,' and Padilla replied that 'it's gonna happen soon,' " according to the indictment.
The court papers also say in September 1998, Padilla flew to Egypt from Miami. Hassoun kept tabs on Padilla, checking on his financial situation and progress of his studies.
Hassoun was writing checks for thousands of dollars, some of which was apparently for Padilla, and others that were apparently for operations in Kosovo, Chechnya and other places.
Padilla talked about the possibility of going to Yemen in April 2000, but in July 2000, according to the indictment, Padilla filled out a "Mujahideen Data Form" to prepare for violent jihad training in Afghanistan, Usama bin Laden's terrorist training grounds.
Youssef acknowledged in September 2000 that Padilla "entered into the area of Usama," and Hassoun continued financial support, including a November 2001 check for $2,000 with a memo line filled out as "Afghan relief."
FOX News' Catherine Herridge and Greg Simmons and The Associated Press contributed to this report.