WASHINGTON – A federal appeals court Friday backed the president’s power to indefinitely detain a U.S. citizen captured on U.S. soil without any criminal charges, holding that such authority is vital during wartime to protect the nation from terrorist attacks.
The ruling, by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, came in the case of Jose Padilla, a former gang member and U.S. citizen arrested in Chicago in 2002 and a month later designated an “enemy combatant” by President Bush. The government contends that Padilla trained at al-Qaida camps and was planning to blow up apartment buildings in the United States.
Padilla has been held without trial in a U.S. naval brig for more than three years, and his case has ignited a fierce battle over the balance between civil liberties and the government’s power to fight terrorism since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. A host of civil liberties groups and former attorney general Janet Reno weighed in on Padilla’s behalf, calling his detention illegal and arguing that the president does not have unchecked power to lock up U.S. citizens indefinitely.
Federal prosecutors asserted that Bush not only had the authority to detain Padilla but also that such power is essential to preventing terrorist strikes. In its ruling Friday, the three-judge panel overturned a lower court.
A congressional resolution passed after Sept. 11 “provided the President all powers necessary and appropriate to protect American citizens from terrorist attacks,” the decision said. “Those powers include the power to detain identified and committed enemies such as Padilla, who associated with al Qaeda … who took up arms against this Nation in its war against these enemies, and who entered the United States for the avowed purpose of further prosecuting that war by attacking American citizens.”
Padilla is one of two U.S. citizens held as enemy combatants since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. The other, Yaser Esam Hamdi, was released and flown to Saudi Arabia last year after the Supreme Court upheld the government’s power to detain him but said he could challenge that detention in U.S. courts.
Legal experts were closely watching the Padilla case because of a key difference between the two: Hamdi was captured on a battlefield in Afghanistan with forces loyal to that country’s former Taliban rulers, and Padilla was arrested in the United States.
Legal experts said the debate is likely to reach the Supreme Court. Andrew Patel, an attorney for Padilla, said he might appeal directly to the Supreme Court or first ask the entire 4th Circuit to review the decision. “We’re very disappointed,” he said.
The ruling limits the president’s power to detain Padilla to the duration of hostilities against al-Qaida, but the Bush administration has said that war could go on indefinitely.