Sunday, May 20, 2007

Be afraid - be very afraid

The question is, just what is it that we should fear? And who? The opening days of Jose Padilla's trial have proved to be odd ones for the government that re-open that question.

First, it develops that the "Mujahideen Identification Form" Padilla supposedly filled out - and which provides the only evidence, at least of which we know, that connects him to training camps in Afghanistan - is less than it seems. For one thing, as the Washington Post reported on Saturday,
[t]he form is filled out with Padilla's birth date and personal information that resembles his, but it is signed in Arabic by "Abu Abdallah Al-Muhajir," not "Jose Padilla."

The form is labeled "military administration" and "top secret," but nowhere does it mention al-Qaeda.
What's more, one of the government's own witnesses, one described as "critical" to the government's case, contradicted two of the government's central assertions. Here's one:
"This piece of paper [i.e., the identification form] proves that Jose Padilla trained at one of the al-Qaeda camps," Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Frazier told jurors. "The fact that this form even exists proves that Padilla was there." ...

[But] Yahya Goba, 30, of Lackawanna, N.Y., who is serving a 10-year prison sentence, testified that he filled out a similar form before attending the al-Farooq camp run by al-Qaeda. ...

But then he testified that, after completing the form with false information as he was instructed, he was given the explicit opportunity not to proceed to the training.
That is, the "fact that the form exists" does not necessarily mean Padilla ever went to one of the camps. And if Goba was instructed to fill out the form with false information, what does that say about linking the other form to Padilla by virtue of it containing accurate information about him?

Here's the other:
Goba testified that he attended the camp not to commit terrorism but to get military training so that someday he could possibly defend Muslims under attack in Chechnya, Kosovo and Kashmir. ...

"This was not a terrorist training camp, was it?" asked Michael Caruso, one of Padilla's attorneys.

"No," Goba replied.

"It was just a military training camp?"

So according to the government's witness, it was not a "terrorist" camp and even if it can be established that Padilla went to a camp, to the extent Goba's testimony is relevant, it does not necessarily mean Padilla did so with an intent to commit terrorism.

(Sidebar: Goba, testifying in the hope of reducing his sentence, is one of the so-called Lackawanna Six, who pleaded guilty to giving material support to a terrorist group after, their lawyer says, being told they had the choice of doing that or being sent to Gitmo.)

But we are living in the Age of Bush, the age where reality is manufactured, not uncovered, so the prosecution is disputing the testimony of its own witness because it doesn't jibe with official reality.
"I think the jury is left with a false impression at this point," Frazier complained to the judge. "This was a terrorist training camp."
To that end, prosecutors wanted to introduce a video showing Osama bin Laden speaking to recruits at the camp Goba attended. But, depending on what was actually said, not only does bin Laden's mere presence at the camp not necessarily mean it was a "terrorist training camp," it establishes very little about whatever camp Padilla was at - assuming, again, he was at one. So District Judge Marcia Cooke agreed that the video would simply be prejudicial and barred it.

And one other thing: Prosecutors have tried to overcome the limits on connecting Padilla to the identification form by noting his fingerprints were found on the document. However, those prints were found on the front of the first page of the five-page form and the back of the last page - but not on the middle pages. That would appear to be more consistent with Padilla being handed the form sometime after his capture rather than having filled it out, especially since the fingerprint expert testifying for the government admitted there as no way of telling when those fingerprints were made.

All in all, the prosecution is off to a very shaky start.

This does not mean, by the way, that I regard Padilla is a wholly innocent victim of a frame-up. It does mean that I believe in innocent until proven guilty even during the War on Terror(c)(reg.)(pat.pend.). It does mean that I believe the US government's conduct in this case, both legally and morally, has been egregious and its treatment of Padilla has been grossly wrong and patently inhumane.

What do I think is the truth about Jose Padilla? Obviously I don't know and what I can offer is pure speculation. But I do sometimes get a gut feeling about something and over time I have learned to trust my instincts. They're not always right, but they're right often enough for me to pay attention to them.

I suspect Padilla did go to a camp in Afghanistan, but whether it was a "terrorist" or a "military training" camp isn't important - because I think he neither went nor returned as a committed jihadist but attended in a surge of revolutionary daydreaming. That is, he favored imagining himself part of some grand, revolutionary movement - much like the Weatherpeople (née Weathermen) in the late '60s. Yes, some of them were into bombs and similar mayhem, but a greater number of those who considered themselves Weatherpeople thought breaking some windows was a dramatic blow against The Empire and many more beyond that simply liked to envision themselves as part of some revolutionary army engaging in the urban guerrilla warfare they were convinced was going to break out any day now. I certainly met enough of the latter two categories (and a couple of the former) to testify to that division.

So did Padilla return to the US as part of some terrorist plot or with some plan in his head? I very much doubt it. Did he return expecting he would be called to jihad on behalf of some terrorist group? Possibly, although "imagining" or "picturing" is probably the more accurate verb. If he was called on to perform a terrorist act, would he have done it? Of that I'm unsure. Perhaps he would, but I suspect that in the event he was asked to take part in some plot, it would turn out to be more like the plot to bring down the Brooklyn Bridge, which was abandoned before the FBI knew about it, or - at least as it appears so far - the Fort Dix plot, where it seems the informants did more to move it along than the accused did: In other words, a plot marked by a lot of talk, a lot of planning, a lot of scheming, a lot of casing the site, but very little of anything actually happening.

Be that as it may, time will tell, and other assorted wrapping-up clichés, for me the bottom line of the Padilla case remains what it has been: one of government misconduct, of violations of human rights and the Constitution, and of inhumane treatment justified by a never-ending "war" against an "opponent" who can be redefined as is convenient, all in pursuit of unrestrained power. Let's not forget that.

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