By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 15, 2007
MIAMI, May 14 -- After Jose Padilla was arrested five years ago as the "dirty bomber," his mug shot, tanned and glowering, became the face of domestic U.S. terrorism.
But as his trial on charges of participating in a "conspiracy to murder, kidnap and maim" opened here Monday, the case against the former Taco Bell worker and convert to Islam has shifted and shrunk, reflecting the Bush administration's difficulties in pursuing terrorism suspects.
In the case presented to the jury, Padilla is no longer alleged to have plotted to set off a radioactive, or "dirty," bomb. Nor is he alleged to have played a role in any other specific violent plots, in the United States or anywhere else.
Prosecutors instead repeatedly emphasized their belief that Padilla and his two co-defendants formed a South Florida "support cell" that had ties to al-Qaeda. Again and again, prosecutors invoked the terrorist group's name in their hour-long opening arguments -- by one defense account, 91 times.
"Jose Padilla was one of the recruits," Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Frazier told the jury. "We will prove he was an al-Qaeda terrorist trainee."
Defense attorneys responded by suggesting that because the prosecution case lacks specifics, prosecutors were relying on scare tactics -- the "politics of fear" aroused by baseless links to the terrorist group -- to persuade the jury.
"Jose was not a member of any support cell because there was none," one of his attorneys, Anthony Natale, told the jury. "He was not a party to any criminal attacks . . . there are no victims to speak of."
After he was arrested in May 2002, Padilla became the most prominent of the Bush administration's terrorism suspects because of the president's decision to detain a U.S. citizen militarily as an "enemy combatant." Once the Supreme Court seemed to tilt against that tactic -- 3 1/2 years later -- the administration moved him to the civilian justice system.
Since Padilla landed in criminal court in January 2006, the prosecution seems to have faltered.
The two sources who first told U.S. authorities that Padilla was a potential dirty bomber are not expected to testify, presumably because the federal government does not want them to, or because prosecutors fear the testimony would be inadmissible. One of the two sources was Abu Zubaida, identified as a top al-Qaeda operative, who says he was tortured in U.S. custody.
None of Padilla's statements during military interrogations at the Charleston naval brig, in which he allegedly confirmed his interest in a dirty bomb, is expected to be presented in court. For those interrogations, the suspect was not offered a lawyer, as required in criminal procedures.
Now, the essence of the allegations against Padilla is that, with the support of the South Florida support cell, he attended an al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan in July 2000.
The key piece of evidence is a "mujaheddin data form" bearing Padilla's fingerprints and personal information, which prosecutors say was discovered at a reputed al-Qaeda hideout in Afghanistan.
Defense attorneys have attacked the authenticity and origins of the document, advising jurors that expert witnesses have found that the writing on the form came from two inks from two pens.
"The government is really trying to put al-Qaeda on trial in this case, and it doesn't belong in this courtroom," said Jeanne Baker, a lawyer for co-defendant Adham Hassoun.
For all the menace that Padilla seemed to pose five years ago, he is in some ways also a bit player in the trial. His co-defendants, Hassoun and Kifah Jayyousi, appear to have had busier roles in the South Florida support cell that forms the heart of the prosecution.
The cell is charged with sending money and recruits to aid in "violent jihad" movements in Lebanon, Somalia, Kosovo and Chechnya.
Hassoun is described by prosecutors as "the recruiter," Jayyousi as the fundraiser, and Padilla, a recruit.
To build the case, authorities tapped thousands of calls, and a selection of them "will tell the story of the case," according to Frazier.
But Padilla's voice appears on only seven, and his defense attorneys characterized his interaction with the "recruiter" as the innocent conversations between a young man with a troubled marriage, Padilla, and an older man at his mosque, Hassoun. Padilla wanted to become more proficient in Arabic and become an imam, Natale said, so he traveled to Egypt, eventually remarrying a woman there.
In this time "when fear runs high," Natale told jurors, the prosecutors erred by looking at the case through the "goggles of guilt."