Key Evidence in Padilla Case: An Al Qaeda Job Application

Alleged terrorist won't face dirty bomb charges, but trial could set precedent.

May 14, 2007 — -- Here is a key piece of evidence in the case against American-born Jose Padilla, whose federal trial begins Monday in Miami — an Al Qaeda job application form. (Click here to read an English translation of the Al Qaeda application, as well as the original Arabic.)

The application — obtained by ABC News' Law & Justice Unit — provides a window into a highly sophisticated organization with a corporate structure that resembles that of large American companies.

"It's a membership application — just the way you or I would fill out an application for a credit card company,'' said Jack Cloonan, former head of the FBI's Osama bin Laden squad in New York and now an ABC News consultant, who reviewed the document. "They're no different.''

The document's authenticity was confirmed to ABC News' Law & Justice Unit by the U.S. attorney's office in Miami, where Padilla is being prosecuted. The government claims Padilla's signature on the application is authentic.

Padilla, 36, and two other men who will stand trial with him are accused of being part of a North American support cell for Islamic extremists overseas. All three have pleaded not guilty, and all three face life in prison if convicted.

These charges pale in comparison to the original allegations made by the government against Padilla when he was apprehended in Chicago in the summer of 2002 — that he had plotted to explode a dirty bomb inside the United States. However, experts tell ABC News that the application — along with wiretaps obtained by the government — may be compelling enough evidence to convict him on the far narrower charges of conspiracy to support terrorism.

Padilla is an American of Puerto Rican descent and a former Chicago gang member who became a Muslim while in a U.S. prison.

He is alleged to have filled out the application in July 2000 to attend an al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan. On the application, which was found in a safe house in Afghanistan along with hundreds of other documents, Padilla uses his Muslim name, Abu Abdallah Al Muhajir.

His arrest was hailed as an early and key "step forward'' in the war on terrorism by then U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, who had interrupted a trip in Russia to announce Padilla's apprehension.

Defense attorneys are expected to challenge the authenticity of the application and whether Padilla actually filled it out himself. A CIA agent is expected to testify in disguise to the document's authenticity and how it was found.

Applying to Al Qaeda Inc.

The application begins with all the routine questions one would expect on a job or loan application — date of birth, professional skills, languages, a contact in case of emergency, and family background.

It is labeled "Top Secret'' and lists the headings "The Military Administration — Personnel Branch."

Under a section called "Security Status," the applicant is asked: "How is the security status in your country?" and "Can you return to your country?"

Padilla allegedly checked the response: "Yes, With No Problems."

The application requests information on military service, and inquires about rank, specialty and whether the applicant has experience on the "battle front." The form also inquires about the applicant's health status, including vision, previous political affiliations, religious background, and professional references.

Also notable: many of the questions on Padilla's alleged application were left unanswered.

At the very end of the form is a section labeled "Administrative Use." "Al Qaeda were great record keepers,'' said Cloonan. "When al Qaeda was conceived of there were articles of incorporation. It was a very top to bottom organization. There was an organizational chart. You had an employment contract. … You had the remnants of an insurance plan. You have a salary … as a single member of al Qaeda, you are paid $1,000 a month. As a married member, you get paid $1,500.

"And believe it or not if you choose to leave the group you had a buyout package. And that buyout package was $2,400 and airline tickets to wherever you wanted to go."

Cloonan said that "at one point, they … had something like human resources. They had a public relations arm … so when these safehouses were raided both in Pakistan and also in Afghanistan, what they came out with was a treasure trove of documents.''

Drama, but No 'Dirty Bomb' Charges

Padilla's trial is one of the most anticipated terror trials since 9/11 — but not for the reasons one might expect.

When Padilla was arrested at Chicago's O'Hare airport, Attorney General Ashcroft said U.S. officials had "disrupted an unfolding terrorist plot to attack the United States by exploding a radioactive 'dirty bomb,'" according to a transcript of Ashcroft's statement.

Two other men, Adham Amin Hassoun and Kifah Wael Jayyousi, both 45, were said by Ashcroft to be key al Qaeda recruiters and fundraisers, while Padilla, the only American-born detainee, was portrayed as America's worst nightmare — a Benedict Arnold for the nuclear age.

"Al Qaeda officials knew that as a citizen of the United States, as a citizen of the United States holding a valid U.S. passport, Al Muhajir would be able to travel freely in the U.S. without drawing attention to himself," Ashcroft said, using Padilla's Muslim name.

With New York City firefighters still digging through the rubble of 9/11, Ashcroft's announcement struck a nerve in the collective conscience of a nation still reeling from the worst terrorist attack in its history. But nearly five years later, the term "dirty bomb'' cannot be found anywhere in the charges Padilla will actually face.

In order to convict Padilla of conspiracy, the government will have to prove that he is guilty of either one act of providing material support to terrorists or one act of conspiring to murder, kidnap or maim "persons in a foreign country." If convicted of that charge, he could get life in prison.

For Padilla, the strongest piece of evidence appears to be the job application. Prosecutors say his fingerprints were found on the original document.

A Potentially Precedent-Setting Case

For three and a half years, Padilla was held in a Navy military brig in South Carolina, charged as an "enemy combatant.'' It wasn't until the fall of 2005 that the "dirty bomb'' plot charges were dropped, and the Pentagon transferred Padilla from the brig into a federal detention center in Miami.

"The government's theory of the case has changed I think because it had to,'' Cloonan told ABC News. "When the government decided in November of 2005 to move Padilla from military custody to civilian custody, they had to come up with some kind of charges — they had to come up with some basis for indicting him, for trying him criminally.

"It could be that the government has evidence about the dirty bomb plot that they cannot use, either because of the means by which it was obtained, or because of the individuals who provided it."

Some of the people who gave the government key information about Padilla — including 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Zubaydah — are being held in military custody at the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Sources tell ABC News that the government would certainly not want to be in a position of offering evidence from these individuals, thereby giving the defense an opening to potentially cross-examine them.

Besides the application, the government has said in court documents that it has wiretaps of suspected terrorists' conversations where Padilla's name is mentioned, and others of Padilla himself speaking in what the government claims is code.

The government claims the suspected terrorists and supporters used the term "football" to refer to armed conflict; "tourism" for travel and expenses abroad, and "the other team'' when referring to enemies of the organization.

The case could be precedent setting, Cloonan said."I think the significance of Padilla is twofold. First, it is entirely significant that Padilla is being tried in the first place. Given the circumstances in which he was held in military detention for over three years, that he's finally having his day in court is, I think, an enormously important step — and one that should be rightly applauded by people on both sides.

"The flip side of that is that it has taken five years, and so the significance of the Padilla case in the broader context of the war on terrorism is whether it will serve as a precedent — whether no matter what happens in the criminal trial — the notion the government can take a U.S. citizen, pick him up off the streets, hold him in military custody for a fixed period of time, and then transfer him to the criminal court system — that's the question — whether this will be a precedent for more cases like this for the future, whether Padilla is convicted or not."

Evidence from Detention Interrogations Barred from Trial

Padilla's military incarceration was harsh.For much of that time he was without human contact, light, clocks or a mirror, according to the Los Angeles Times, which cited court documents. He was held in "stress positions" and subject to extreme heat, light and noise. He was also reportedly interrogated without an attorney.

The seven men and five women on the jury in the highly-charged case have not been sequestered, but have been warned repeatedly to avoid news accounts about the trial.

The federal judge in the case, Marcia Cooke, 52, was the first black woman named to U.S. District Court in Southern Florida. She was born in Sumter, S.C., but grew up in Detroit.

In previous hearings, she has ordered the defendants' handcuffs be removed in court.

Lawyers for Padilla had argued that the manner in which he was held and interrogated and its duration caused a significant deterioration of his mental capacities. They said it was so severe that he could not participate in his own defense. According to two defense experts who interviewed Padilla, his mental capacity was seriously dimished. But after a four-day hearing in February, Judge Cooke determined that Padilla was competent to stand trial.

She rejected defense arguments that the entire case be thrown out because Padilla's detention and interrogations violated his rights to due process. She said he could still receive a fair trial as long as the products of those interrogations were not introduced into evidence.

Chris Francescani and Mary Harris contributed to this report.