Doh, about that dirty bomb…

Ever wondered what became of the “dirty bomb” plot the Justice Department boasted about breaking up? So does a federal appeals court.

In June 2002, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft interrupted a trip to Moscow to make this stunning announcement: “We have captured a known terrorist who was exploring a plan to build and explode a radiological dispersion device, or ‘dirty bomb,’ in the United States.” He referred to a dirty bomb, sometimes using the more upscale “radiological dispersion device,” five times in his statement and congratulated various agencies, including his own, on keeping Americans safe.

Actually, the feds had arrested Jose Padilla the previous month at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport and held him as a material witness. What happened in June was that the Bush administration declared Padilla an “illegal combatant,” a formulation that took Padilla away from his lawyer and any access to the press and imprisoned him in a Navy brig without such basic rights as formal charges or access to the courts and attorneys.

Over the course of his incarceration, a dirty bomb, which in any case looked like a stretch for a petty criminal, was mentioned less and less in favor of a plot to blow up buildings by renting apartments and turning on the gas.

There was one other “illegal combatant” imprisoned under the same circumstances as Padilla, a young U.S.-born Saudi named Yaser Esam Hamdi who had been bagged in Afghanistan and initially imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. When it looked like Hamdi, after a favorable Supreme Court ruling, would get his case before a federal court, the administration quietly and tamely let this supposedly hardened terrorist go back home to Saudi Arabia.

Faced with the likelihood that Padilla, like Hamdi, might prevail in the Supreme Court, the government charged him, formally indicting him in Miami last week on terrorism charges. But the indictment made no mention of the dirty-bomb plot.

With some asperity, the appeals court declined to order his transfer to Justice Department custody and demanded to know what happened to the dirty bomb or, as the judges put it, to explain the discrepancy between “the different facts that were alleged by the president to warrant Padilla’s military detention” and “the alleged facts on which Padilla has now been indicted.”

The judges aren’t the only ones who’d like to know what’s going on. The best way for that to happen is for the appeals court to vacate its decision upholding illegal-combatant status and let Padilla stand trial in open court.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)