With characteristic overstatement, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales proclaimed the verdict in the case of Jose Padilla “a significant victory” in combating terrorism.

It was a victory in the sense that the jury quickly found Padilla and two others guilty but “significant” would be stretching matters.

But in another sense it was a setback for the Bush administration. The Padilla case, like the Moussaoui case earlier, proved that contrary to White House insistence terrorism cases can be prosecuted in the civilian criminal courts, obviating the need for the administration’s planned military tribunals with the president as final arbiter.

The Padilla case had a way of shrinking ever since then-Attorney General John Ashcroft interrupted his trip to Moscow for the dramatic announcement that Padilla, who had already been in custody a month, had been plotting to set off a radioactive “dirty bomb,” in furtherance of what was never specified.

Padilla was pronounced an “enemy combatant” and for 3 1/2 years held incommunicado in a military prison without charge while his lawyers tried to secure his basic rights of due process. Finally, faced with certain defeat in the Supreme Court, the administration abruptly relented and transferred him to the criminal court system.

The charges too were scaled down. Padilla and two co-defendants were convicted of one count of conspiracy to murder, maim and kidnap overseas, one count of material support for terrorists and one count of conspiracy to provide material support for which they face life in prison.

Padilla did attend a terrorist training camp in July 2000, and among the evidence is an application form with his fingerprints and personal information on it. Also in evidence were transcripts of seemingly coded messages between the other two defendants. Padilla’s brief appearance in the transcripts suggests that rather than a criminal mastermind Padilla was a rather dim follower. Lawyers for the three say they will appeal.

If anybody won a significant victory in the Padilla case it was the American people and their Constitution. The challenges to his arbitrary incarceration reestablished the fundamental constitution principle that the American president cannot throw an American citizen into a military prison without charge, without access to counsel and without the right to challenge his detention before a judge.

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