The government blows the "dirty bomber" bust by bragging about it.
This week, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that the U.S. government had captured Jose Padilla, an alleged al-Qaida terrorist who was supposedly plotting to detonate a radioactive bomb in the United States. President Bush applauded the announcement and held it up as evidence that we're winning the war on terrorism.
Great news. Just one question for Bush and Ashcroft: Why are you telling us this?
Any cop who's ever worked a case involving more than one conspirator knows that you never want the bad guys to know how much you know. Once the second conspirator knows that you've caught the first, he might bolt or change his routines. Once he knows what the first has told you, he knows how to change his plans and his story.
Thanks to Ashcroft's announcement and additional leaks by administration "officials," Padilla's co-conspirators now know plenty about what we know. They know that we have Padilla. They know that we know when, how many times, and in what city he met with al-Qaida leaders. They know that we know exactly what technologies he studied there. They know that we know he "used the Internet at a home in Lahore, Pakistan" to do some of his research. They know at what point in his travels we got wise to him and began tracking him. They know that we're tracing his money trail in Switzerland. They know that we're interrogating an associate abroad who helped him research radioactive bombs in Lahore, and that this associate has told us about meetings between Padilla and al-Qaida leaders in Karachi, Pakistan, three months ago.
Why did we divulge all this, through the press, to Padilla's co-conspirators? The explanation given by Ashcroft, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, and other U.S. officials is that the government had held Padilla for 30 days and was legally obliged either to charge him with a crime, justify in court his confinement without charges under civilian law, or transfer him to military custody. According to this rationale, one way or another, his detention was going to become public, and the government had to get out in front of the story in order to persuade the public that the detention was justified.
It doesn't add up. By declaring Padilla an enemy combatant and transferring him to military custody, the government bypassed the court hearing that would supposedly have forced the detention into the open. At that point, the only danger of disclosure was that members or staffers of the congressional committees that deal with military affairs might leak the story. They never got that chance because Ashcroft beat them to it.
Moreover, the government's stated reasons for choosing military detention rather than civilian prosecution directly contradict its rationale for releasing the story. The government's stated reason for avoiding civilian prosecution is that we couldn't prove Padilla's criminal guilt without divulging "intelligence sources" and "investigative details" we dare not expose. In the absence of such prosecution, its stated reason for detaining Padilla anyway is that we need to keep interrogating him and others to unravel future plots. "We're not interested in trying him at the moment,'' said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. "We're interested in finding out what in the world he knows" and obtaining information to "protect the American people from future terrorist acts."
If those are the government's reasons, why is it divulging intelligence sources and investigative details that impair its ability to interrogate plotters and possibly prevent terrorist acts?
Assuming that the worst-case scenario isn't true—that our government is lying to us—the most plausible answer is the one Bush and Ashcroft have displayed in their comments on the story. On Monday, Ashcroft announced the detention via video hookup from Moscow, emphasizing that it demonstrated better cooperation among the FBI, the CIA, and other agencies. Tuesday morning, Bush told reporters, "This guy Padilla is one of many who we've arrested. … The coalition we put together has hauled in over 2,400 people. And you can call it 2,401 now." Tuesday afternoon, Bush repeated to applause, "We've rounded up and detained over 2,400 terrorists. … We're making progress. You probably read in the newspaper, the number's now 2,401." Tuesday evening at a fund-raiser, Bush said, to more applause, "We and our friends have arrested and detained over 2,400 terrorists. As you read in the newspaper, we now need to make that 2,401."
Now comes Wednesday's front-page New York Times story, in which "American officials" divulge additional details gleaned from interrogations of one of al-Qaida's top planners, Abu Zubaydah. The explanations given by U.S. officials for telling us what they've learned from Padilla don't apply to Zubaydah. The only thing the two orgies of disclosure seem to have in common is chest-thumping. Scorekeeper, please turn the dial from 2,401 to 2,402, so that everyone will know we're winning the war.
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.