Video Is a Window Into a Terror Suspect’s Isolation
By DEBORAH SONTAG
Published: December 4, 2006
One spring day during his three and a half years as an enemy combatant, Jose
Padilla experienced a break from the monotony of his solitary confinement in
a bare cell in the brig at the Naval Weapons Station in Charleston, S.C.
That day, Mr. Padilla, a Brooklyn-born Muslim convert whom the Bush
administration had accused of plotting a dirty bomb attack and had detained
without charges, got to go to the dentist.
“Today is May 21,” a naval official declared to a camera videotaping the
event. “Right now we’re ready to do a root canal treatment on Jose Padilla,
our enemy combatant.”
Several guards in camouflage and riot gear approached cell No. 103. They
unlocked a rectangular panel at the bottom of the door and Mr. Padilla’s
bare feet slid through, eerily disembodied. As one guard held down a foot
with his black boot, the others shackled Mr. Padilla’s legs. Next, his hands
emerged through another hole to be manacled.
Wordlessly, the guards, pushing into the cell, chained Mr. Padilla’s cuffed
hands to a metal belt. Briefly, his expressionless eyes met the camera
before he lowered his head submissively in expectation of what came next:
noise-blocking headphones over his ears and blacked-out goggles over his
eyes. Then the guards, whose faces were hidden behind plastic visors,
marched their masked, clanking prisoner down the hall to his root canal.
The videotape of that trip to the dentist, which was recently released to
Mr. Padilla’s lawyers and viewed by The New York Times, offers the first
concrete glimpse inside the secretive military incarceration of an American
citizen whose detention without charges became a test case of President
Bush’s powers in the fight against terror. Still frames from the videotape
were posted in Mr. Padilla’s electronic court file late Friday.
To Mr. Padilla’s lawyers, the pictures capture the dehumanization of their
client during his military detention from mid-2002 until earlier this year,
when the government changed his status from enemy combatant to criminal
defendant and transferred him to the federal detention center in Miami. He
now awaits trial scheduled for late January.
Together with other documents filed late Friday, the images represent the
latest and most aggressive sally by defense lawyers who declared this fall
that charges against Mr. Padilla should be dismissed for “outrageous
government conduct,” saying that he was mistreated and tortured during his
years as an enemy combatant.
Now lawyers for Mr. Padilla, 36, suggest that he is unfit to stand trial.
They argue that he has been so damaged by his interrogations and prolonged
isolation that he suffers post-traumatic stress disorder and is unable to
assist in his own defense. His interrogations, they say, included hooding,
stress positions, assaults, threats of imminent execution and the
administration of “truth serums.”
A Pentagon spokesman, Lt. Col. Todd Vician, said Sunday that the military
disputes Mr. Padilla’s accusations of mistreatment. And, in court papers,
prosecutors deny “in the strongest terms” the accusations of torture and say
that “Padilla’s conditions of confinement were humane and designed to ensure
his safety and security.”
“His basic needs were met in a conscientious manner, including Halal (Muslim
acceptable) food, clothing, sleep and daily medical assessment and treatment
when necessary,” the government stated. “While in the brig, Padilla never
reported any abusive treatment to the staff or medical personnel.”
In the brig, Mr. Padilla was denied access to counsel for 21 months. Andrew
Patel, one of his lawyers, said his isolation was not only severe but
compounded by material and sensory deprivations. In an affidavit filed
Friday, he alleged that Mr. Padilla was held alone in a 10-cell wing of the
brig; that he had little human contact other than with his interrogators;
that his cell was electronically monitored and his meals were passed to him
through a slot in the door; that windows were blackened, and there was no
clock or calendar; and that he slept on a steel platform after a foam
mattress was taken from him, along with his copy of the Koran, “as part of
an interrogation plan.”
Mr. Padilla’s situation, as an American declared an enemy combatant and held
without charges by his own government, was extraordinary and the conditions
of his detention appear to have been unprecedented in the military justice
Philip D. Cave, a former judge advocate general for the Navy and now a
lawyer specializing in military law, said, “There’s nothing comparable in
terms of severity of confinement, in terms of how Padilla was held,
especially considering that this was pretrial confinement.”
Ali al-Marri, a Qatari and Saudi dual citizen and the only enemy combatant
currently detained in the United States, has made similar claims of
isolation and deprivation at the brig in South Carolina. The Pentagon
spokesman, Lieutenant Vician, said Sunday that he could not comment on the
methods used to escort Mr. Padilla to the dentist. Blackened goggles and
earphones are rarely employed in internal prison transports in the United
States, but riot gear is sometimes used for violent prisoners.
One of Mr. Padilla’s lawyers, Orlando do Campo, said, however, that Mr.
Padilla was a “completely docile” prisoner. “There was not one disciplinary
problem with Jose ever, not one citation, not one act of disobedience,” said
Mr. do Campo, who is a lawyer at the Miami federal public defender’s office.
In his affidavit, Mr. Patel said, “I was told by members of the brig staff
that Mr. Padilla’s temperament was so docile and inactive that his behavior
was like that of ‘a piece of furniture.’ ”
Federal prosecutors and defense lawyers are locked in a tug of war over the
relevancy of Mr. Padilla’s military detention to the present criminal case.
Federal prosecutors have asked the judge to forbid Mr. Padilla’s lawyers
from mentioning the circumstances of his military detention during the
trial, maintaining that their accusations could “distract and inflame the
But defense lawyers say it is unconscionable to ignore Mr. Padilla’s
military detention because, among other reasons, it altered him in a way
that will impinge on his trial.
Dr. Angela Hegarty, director of forensic psychiatry at the Creedmoor
Psychiatric Center in Queens, N.Y., who examined Mr. Padilla for a total of
22 hours in June and September, said in an affidavit filed Friday that he
“lacks the capacity to assist in his own defense.”
“It is my opinion that as the result of his experiences during his detention
and interrogation, Mr. Padilla does not appreciate the nature and
consequences of the proceedings against him, is unable to render assistance
to counsel, and has impairments in reasoning as the result of a mental
illness, i.e., post-traumatic stress disorder, complicated by the
neuropsychiatric effects of prolonged isolation,” Dr. Hegarty said in an
affidavit for the defense.
Mr. Padilla’s status was abruptly changed to criminal defendant from enemy
combatant last fall. At the time, the Supreme Court was weighing whether to
take up the legality of his military detention — and thus the issue of the
president’s authority to seize an American citizen on American soil and hold
him indefinitely without charges — when the Bush administration pre-empted
its decision by filing criminal charges against Mr. Padilla.
Mr. Padilla was added as a defendant in a terrorism conspiracy case already
under way in Miami. The strong public accusations made during his military
detention — about the dirty bomb, Al Qaeda connections and supposed plans to
set off natural gas explosions in apartment buildings — appear nowhere in
the indictment against him. The indictment does not allege any specific
violent plot against America.
Mr. Padilla is portrayed in the indictment as the recruit of a “North
American terror support cell” that sent money, goods and recruits abroad to
assist “global jihad” in general, with a special interest in Bosnia and
Chechnya. Mr. Padilla, the indictment asserts, traveled overseas “to
participate in violent jihad” and filled out an application for a mujahedin
training camp in Afghanistan.
Michael Caruso, a public defender for Mr. Padilla, pleaded “absolutely not
guilty” for him to charges of conspiracy and of providing material support
to terrorists. Mr. Padilla faces two charges that each carry a maximum
penalty of 15 years.
Over the summer, Judge Marcia G. Cooke of United States District Court in
Miami threw out the most serious charge, of conspiracy to murder, kidnap and
maim persons in a foreign country, saying that it replicated accusations in
the other counts and could lead to multiple punishments for a single crime.
This was a setback for the government, which has appealed the dismissal.
Mr. Padilla’s lawyers say they have had a difficult time persuading him that
they are on his side.
From the time Mr. Padilla was allowed access to counsel, Mr. Patel visited
him repeatedly in the brig and in the Miami detention center, and Mr.
Padilla has observed Mr. Patel arguing on his behalf in Miami federal court.
But, Mr. Patel said in his affidavit, his client is nonetheless mistrustful.
“Mr. Padilla remains unsure if I and the other attorneys working on his case
are actually his attorneys or another component of the government’s
interrogation scheme,” Mr. Patel said.
Mr. do Campo said that Mr. Padilla was not incommunicative, and that he
expressed curiosity about what was going on in the world, liked to talk
about sports and demonstrated particularly keen interest in the Chicago
But the defense lawyers’ questions often echo the questions interrogators
have asked Mr. Padilla, and when that happens, he gets jumpy and shuts down,
the lawyers said.
Dr. Hegarty said Mr. Padilla refuses to review the video recordings of his
interrogations, which have been released to his lawyers but remain
He is especially reluctant to discuss what happened in the brig, fearful
that he will be returned there some day, Mr. Patel said in his affidavit.
“During questioning, he often exhibits facial tics, unusual eye movements
and contortions of his body,” Mr. Patel said. “The contortions are
particularly poignant since he is usually manacled and bound by a belly
chain when he has meetings with counsel.”