Monday, February 28, 2005

Who tried to assassinate Bush?

I haven't found any good articles on this issue but this one is better than most. From MSNBC:

The confession came quickly, and it sounded damning. After a few days of allegedly rough interrogation, Ahmed Omar Abu Ali—a soft-spoken high-school valedictorian from the Washington, D.C., suburbs—either cracked or simply told his questioners what they wanted to hear. While studying in the holy city of Medina, Saudi Arabia, Abu Ali said, he had met with a Qaeda operative and offered to set up a sleeper cell in the United States to organize terror attacks. He wanted to be like September 11 ringleader Muhammad Atta, Abu Ali added in his confession. The young Muslim American even talked about an assassination plot. The purported target: President George W. Bush. Abu Ali allegedly suggested that Bush could either be shot on the street or blown up in a car-bomb attack.

An open-and-shut case, you might think. The problem with this Perry Mason moment, however, is that it occurred in a Saudi Arabian prison, where no U.S. officials were present and where, according to human-rights groups, suspects are often physically abused. One of Abu Ali's lawyers, Edward MacMahon, said after the suspect's first court hearing last week that he personally saw "multiple scars" all over Abu Ali's back, looking "exactly like somebody who has been whipped." Prosecutors deny this, but even U.S. law-enforcement officials admit there is a good chance Abu Ali could eventually walk out of prison a free man. The indictment of Abu Ali shows how the administration's aggressive pursuit of the global war on terror is increasingly getting tangled up in legal constraints at home.

An open-and-shut case, you might think. The problem with this Perry Mason moment, however, is that it occurred in a Saudi Arabian prison, where no U.S. officials were present and where, according to human-rights groups, suspects are often physically abused. One of Abu Ali's lawyers, Edward MacMahon, said after the suspect's first court hearing last week that he personally saw "multiple scars" all over Abu Ali's back, looking "exactly like somebody who has been whipped." Prosecutors deny this, but even U.S. law-enforcement officials admit there is a good chance Abu Ali could eventually walk out of prison a free man. The indictment of Abu Ali shows how the administration's aggressive pursuit of the global war on terror is increasingly getting tangled up in legal constraints at home.

Government officials are acutely aware of these problems—which is one reason Abu Ali's nearly two-year-old criminal case remained unaddressed in U.S. courts until last week. NEWSWEEK has learned that his confession, which occurred shortly after his arrest in June 2003, was videotaped by the Saudis and immediately turned over to the FBI. The tape became the chief piece of evidence against him. But back in Washington, the case presented an agonizing dilemma for top Justice Department officials, sources said.

After searching his home in Falls Church, Va., and finding seemingly incriminating documents (including a screed by Osama bin Laden's deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri), federal agents became convinced that Abu Ali was indeed "a really bad guy," as one put it. Yet even the top aides to the then Attorney General John Ashcroft didn't think they had anything resembling a solid criminal case. There was no indication the alleged Bush assassination plot ever advanced beyond the talking phase. No FBI agents were there when Abu Ali made his self-incriminating confession. If the Saudis sent Abu Ali home—as they kept offering to do—Justice officials fretted the videotape would likely get tossed out of court, and Abu Ali would walk. "We didn't know what to do with this guy," one former Justice official confided to NEWSWEEK.

So for the next 20 months, Justice let Abu Ali, a U.S. citizen, languish in a Saudi jail cell. He had no access to a lawyer, and no charges were filed against him. Critics say this is a prime example of how the Bush administration has "outsourced" the detention of terror suspects to cooperative Mideast countries with poor human-rights records. But Abu Ali's Virginia-based parents—his father works as a computer analyst for the Saudi Embassy—say their son was tortured into confessing to lies, and sued the federal government last year. The judge in the civil case, John Bates, grew impatient. Bates threatened to force Justice officials to explain under oath what they knew about Abu Ali's detention. So the department arranged to charge Abu Ali back in the United States with providing material support to terrorists.

The chief federal prosecutor in the case, Paul McNulty, asserted last week that the 23-year-old Houston-born Abu Ali had "turned his back on America and joined the cause of Al Qaeda." But inside Justice, many are still deeply uneasy. "I was amazed they did this," one veteran official said. "I don't know how [the prosecution] can be done successfully." Another senior law-enforcement official told NEWSWEEK that Justice was making the best of a bad situation. Even if the case ultimately collapses, an aggressive prosecution might be able to delay for years the day when Abu Ali will be able to "walk free," the official explained.

But is this a legitimate tactic in the war on terror? In the aftermath of September 11, the White House had resorted to even more brazen methods: it declared two other U.S. citizens, Yaser Hamdi and Jose Padilla, "enemy combatants" and threw them into military brigs without access to lawyers. But last June the Supreme Court ruled that the war on terror did not give the president a "blank check" to dispense with core constitutional rights. (Hamdi was released last fall.) The case against Abu Ali, legal experts say, could present even more daunting challenges.

The torture charge is an especially awkward one for the new Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who once reviewed alleged torture techniques in meetings at the White House. Under U.S. law, police brutality—or any hint of a coerced confession—is often ground for dismissal.

U.S. prosecutors insist that Abu Ali was examined by doctors and there were no signs of abuse. But a source close to the Saudi security forces told NEWSWEEK that the interrogations of Abu Ali had indeed been aggressive. "He definitely got slapped around," the source said. "But he was not tortured." Prosecutors will also have to explain how a man described as unfailingly polite became ensnared by terrorists. Abu Ali's family proudly notes that he graduated at the top of his class at the Islamic Saudi Academy outside Washington. But critics like Sen. Chuck Schumer accuse the school—which is funded by the Saudi Embassy—of teaching an intolerant brand of Islam that can breed sympathy for terrorist causes. Prosecutors also say Abu Ali was friendly with some members of a group of Islamic extremists who practiced paramilitary games in the Virginia woods, and sold one of them a rifle.

According to last week's indictment, one of the supposedly incriminating items found in the June 2003 search of his home was a copy of Handguns magazine with Abu Ali's name on the subscription label. That's not exactly a crime, though. One recent issue of Handguns hails President Bush's success in last year's election as a "Sportsmen's Victory." If prosecutors want to keep Abu Ali locked up in the long run, they will have to come up with something more. And if the Bush administration wants to fight a war that is increasingly becoming a legal morass, it may have to think up some new tactics.