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In May 2002, Swiss officials notified the U.S. government that Padilla, whose name had been flagged in international databases, was traveling through Zurich on his way from Pakistan to Chicago.
U.S. marshals obtained a warrant to detain Padilla as a witness for a grand-jury investigation.
Until recently, few details were known about Padilla's 2002 encounter with federal agents at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. This past September 5, however, U.S. Magistrate Judge Stephen T. Brown offered a partial view of sealed reports and public testimony from U.S. Customs and the FBI. The details of those documents are being reported here for the first time.
After Padilla stepped off the plane from Zurich, he was escorted by a U.S. Customs agent to a 20-by-40-foot interrogation room. There he met with Customs Agent Andy Ferreri. The federal official questioned Padilla about why he declared having $8000 in cash when, in fact, he carried a little more than $10,000. Padilla, who had not been arrested and was not restrained, replied that he didn't think it was a "big deal."
FBI officials from New York soon arrived. There were eight agents altogether. After Ferreri left, four of them spoke with Padilla. The other four stood guard outside. Padilla was remarkably forthcoming with the FBI, according to Judge Brown's summary of the sealed reports: "[Padilla] stated that he had been living in Egypt and then voluntarily discussed his early life and relationships and his incarceration, during which time he began his Islamic studies. He then discussed traveling to Pakistan and Egypt to continue his studies. Agent [Russell] Fincher asked the defendant how he was able to afford to do that, and the defendant replied that he was funded by a mosque in Florida and also mentioned several other individuals who helped him make arrangements to go to Egypt. Defendant also discussed his tutor in Islam studies, his pilgrimage to Mecca, and persons who assisted him."
Padilla told FBI officials he wanted to call his mother in Florida, because "he had been 'clean' for many years and did not want his mother to perceive that he was in any kind of trouble." FBI agents pressed Padilla for details: Why do you need to call her? Padilla then dropped the request.
Agent Fincher then became to use the FBI man's word from his report "confrontational." He told Padilla what he believed had occurred in the Middle East: "that [Padilla] had been in Afghanistan, where he had engaged in training and met high-ranking al-Qaeda officials; that those officials sent [Padilla] back to Pakistan, where he was with other associates; that he had left Pakistan en route for somewhere for an act of terrorism; that [Padilla] had been delayed and traveled with another individual who was a foreign national with a false passport and was detained with that person in Karachi; and that [Padilla] then traveled from Zurich to Egypt and back and then to Chicago, where he intended to commit or conduct surveillance for a terrorist act."
The money, Fincher told Padilla, was intended to fund terrorism in the United States.
Padilla stood up. "The interview is over," he said. "It's time for me to go."
Fincher, who described Padilla's demeanor as "a bit confident" and "haughty," said he hoped Padilla would testify voluntarily before a grand jury in New York. The Puerto Rican-American then "asked questions about representation."
At that point, Fincher read Miranda rights and arrested Padilla on the warrant. Officials brought Padilla to New York.
One month later, on June 9, 2002, President George W. Bush declared Padilla an enemy combatant. "Padilla represents a continuing, present, and grave danger to the national security of the United States," Bush wrote.
The president used Mobbs's report as the basis for this conclusion. But, as is indicated in court filings, Mobbs left out a striking detail in his report to the president: The government's two al-Qaeda sources told officials that Padilla was not interested in martyrdom. He had said he refused to die for his faith.
Padilla spent the next three and a half years incarcerated, without access to an attorney, at a military brig in Charleston, South Carolina.
On November 22, 2005, Padilla was finally charged with a crime. Federal prosecutors in Miami alleged he and the other four men plotted to raise money to kill innocent civilians as part of a global terrorism campaign.
Despite his stature as the big-name defendant, Padilla is, in fact, a bit player in the government's case. He was transferred from South Carolina to South Florida on a military plane, with TV news fanfare awaiting him in the Magic City. The reason for his notoriety was obvious: Padilla's mug shot had been all over cable news for years; the tan man with short-cropped black hair was the new image of terror.
But documents filed in Miami don't even mention the most alarming allegation that Padilla was intent on setting off a crude nuclear device. Although the FBI's Arena had alleged Padilla was in contact with top leaders of al-Qaeda and was planning an attack on the United States, those charges were never levied in federal court.