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'Dirty bomb' suspect gets conditional lawyer access

From Kevin Bohn
CNN Washington Bureau

Jose Padilla
Jose Padilla

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(CNN) -- The Defense Department announced Wednesday it has decided to grant "dirty bomb" suspect Jose Padilla access to a lawyer "subject to appropriate security restrictions."

The FBI arrested Padilla in Chicago, Illinois, in May of 2002 on suspicion of being part of a plot to detonate a so-called dirty bomb. He was designated an "enemy combatant" by President Bush a month later and was transferred to the military brig in Charleston, South Carolina, in June.

He has been held there ever since and has not had access to any legal counsel or been formally charged.

In its announcement, the Pentagon said it is "allowing Padilla access to counsel as a matter of discretion and military authority. Such access is not required by domestic or international law and should not be treated as precedent."

It also said the Defense Department "has determined that such access will not compromise the national security of the United States, and has determined that such access will not interfere with intelligence collection from Padilla, who is a U.S. citizen."

Before being transferred to military custody, Padilla was assigned attorney Donna Newman by the court. Her office was informed Wednesday afternoon of the Pentagon's decision. Andrew Patel, an attorney working with Newman, told CNN no time frame was outlined for a visit.

"The timing of this is very curious," Patel told CNN.

The Supreme Court is expected to take up next week whether to hear an appeal in the Padilla case. (Full story)

An appeals court ruled the president did not have the authority to declare Padilla an enemy combatant and ordered him to be released from military custody or to be criminally charged. That order has been stayed until the Supreme Court decides whether to hear the case. (Full story)

"Suddenly, the government, under some conditions, is allowing us an issue they have lost on before every judge who has ruled on this case to date," Patel said. "There is a difference between being able to see Mr. Padilla and being able to have an attorney-client confidential meeting with Mr. Padilla, which is not being offered to us at this time."

The Justice Department filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court Wednesday to urge the justices to accept the case for review. The brief also notes the Defense Department has now allowed Padilla to meet with a lawyer.

Solicitor General Theodore Olson, arguing for the government, told the court Padilla "has engaged in conduct that constituted hostile and war-like acts, that he possesses intelligence that would aid U.S. efforts to prevent attacks by al Qaeda."

Olson said Padilla's arrest outside a traditional combat zone is a sign al Qaeda "aims to perpetrate surreptitious and large-scale attacks against civilian targets."

An official noted that when government lawyer Paul Clement argued the case before the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, he had signaled the government's interrogations of Padilla to obtain useful intelligence were nearing an end, and that Clement had promised the court Padilla would be granted access to an attorney "soon."

"Today is 'soon,' " the official said Wednesday.

The Defense Department in December announced Yasser Hamdi, another American citizen being held as an enemy combatant, could have access to an attorney. It took the Pentagon and Hamdi's lawyer, Frank Dunham, two months to work out the parameters of the visit.

Dunham, who met Hamdi last week at the military brig in South Carolina, complained the restrictions placed on the visit were too stringent: all of his conversations with his client were monitored and he could not discuss the interrogations Hamdi underwent after being captured in Afghanistan.

Patel, one of Padilla's attorneys, said the legal team will review the conditions and then consider their options. He said one option would be to reject the access under the terms offered, and push for more relaxed ones in court.

The Bush administration wants its separate appeal involving Padilla to be argued the same day as Hamdi's case, scheduled for April.

CNN's Barbara Starr, Phil Hirschkorn, Terry Frieden, and Bill Mears contributed to this story.

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