Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales yesterday strongly defended the Bush administration's decision to detain alleged al Qaeda operative Jose Padilla for more than two years without criminal charges, arguing that the government has the right to hold alleged enemy combatants in the war on terrorism "for the duration of hostilities."
But Gonzales, testifying at a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing on the Justice Department's budget, also said that the administration "has no interest in holding someone indefinitely" and will eventually seek to "dispose of the matter" through criminal charges or other actions.
Gonzales's remarks came after a sharply worded decision Monday by U.S. District Judge Henry F. Floyd, who ruled that detaining Padilla indefinitely without charges is illegal and that he must be charged with a crime or freed within 45 days. The government has said it will appeal.
Padilla, a U.S. citizen who grew up in Chicago, has been held in a naval brig in South Carolina since June 2002, when he was designated an enemy combatant by President Bush. Although he was originally described as plotting with al Qaeda members to detonate a radioactive "dirty bomb," the Justice Department has since focused on allegations that he planned to blow up apartment buildings by filling them with natural gas.
Gonzales, the former White House counsel who was sworn in last month as the nation's chief law enforcement official, faced sharp questioning about the Padilla case from Reps. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) and Jose E. Serrano (D-N.Y.). Both argued that Padilla should be given a chance to face trial.
"If I knew the war on terrorism were going to end next year, I would have no problem," said Wolf, chairman of the subcommittee. "But I don't believe it's going to end. . . . And so we cannot continue to keep an American citizen -- this is not [Osama] bin Laden."
Gonzales said that although the administration does not intend to hold Padilla indefinitely, the president has the authority to do so if necessary. The new attorney general also defended the proposal to cut Justice Department grant programs by nearly 50 percent, saying that "difficult decisions were made" because of the rising budget deficits.