The Bush administration’s case against alleged dirty bomber Jose Padilla has sputtered to an inglorious close.

Padilla, you’ll remember, was supposed to be the leader, as the U.S. attorney general himself announced, of “an unfolding terrorist plot against the United States” that featured radioactive dirty bombs and exploding apartment buildings.

He was convicted of the considerably less grave offenses of conspiracy and material support of terrorism for which he received a sentence of 17 years, far less than the life in prison the government asked for and less even than the federal sentencing guidelines recommend.

If the former Chicago gang member was supposed to be a master terrorist, he was a pretty pathetic one. As Judge Marcia Cooke said of Padilla and two others in the dock with him, they may have conspired to do awful things but: “There is no evidence that these defendants personally maimed, kidnapped or killed anyone in the United States or elsewhere.”

However, this unprepossessing figure has come to symbolize an essential American legal principle. Padilla was arrested getting off a plane in Chicago in May, 2002. The Bush administration asserted the right to hold him indefinitely without being charged and without access to a judge or lawyer.

As the lawyers closed in on this egregious assertion of power, the government moved Padilla from the criminal justice system to a military brig, where he was held in solitary for 3 1/2 years, and when the Supreme Court seemed likely to rule against the administration and rule its claims of extraordinary powers unconstitutional, the Bush administration moved him back into the criminal justice system.

Padilla finally got his day in court. He lost but the judge credited him with time served and knocked back his sentence because of the brutal conditions he was held in.

Rather than trying to link up with Islamic terrorists groups, his lawyers said, Padilla was embarked on humanitarian missions on behalf of persecuted Muslims. There’s little in Padilla’s long rap sheet of petty crimes to suggest humanitarian anything.

So what was he doing roaming around Egypt, Pakistan and Afghanistan? It’s still something of a mystery. Padilla isn’t saying. He didn’t testify at his trial or speak at his sentencing. Then again, he has 17 years to write his memoirs.

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