Federal prosecutors allege the obvious, that al-Qaida is a "designated foreign terrorist organization" under federal law, and the not-so-obvious: that shoe-bomb suspect Richard Reid "received training" from al-Qaida in Afghanistan. But the government doesn't appear ready to make the link between what Reid allegedly did on that flight from Paris to Miami and what orders he may or may not received from his al-Qaida trainers. They are not ready to allege, in other words, that Reid was acting on orders from above as opposed to acting on his own.
Not that it is likely to matter as Reid's criminal case moves forward in Boston. Now that the feds have linked him to al-Qaida -- accurately or not -- it will be virtually impossible for jurors to see him as unaffiliated loon who was simply trying to create mayhem on that flight. Nor will jurors likely be able to wave him off as some isolated crank trying to copycat the Sept. 11 terrorists or to piggyback onto their infamy. So not only does the alleged terror link allow prosecutors to hang a "attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction" charge on Reid, it also allows them to paint him with a fairly sinister brush. Now prosecutors can at least try to convince jurors that Reid is the post-attack face of terror, the next wave of attackers.
Another thing that is striking about the nine-count indictment filed Wednesday is just how unspecific it is. It is nine pages long and contains only the barest, most cursory of allegations. There's nothing necessarily wrong about that. Prosecutors don't have to lay out their whole story in their indictment. And we know from experience that different grand juries in different areas of the country, led by different prosecutors with different styles, go about drafting indictments in different ways. There also are strategic reasons why prosecutors might want to play their cards close to their collective vests and not offer a great amount of detail in public about a new criminal case.
That's why, perhaps, the Reid indictment is so sparse while the indictment of Zacarias Moussaoui is so chock-full of factual tidbits. Or why the Reid indictment makes general allegations while the complaint filed earlier this week against John Walker was basically an affidavit of Walker's alleged incriminating statements to U.S. officials. It's important not to read too much into how different these three documents are; after all, they represent different cases involving different people and allegations of different crimes. And maybe federal judges in Boston simply don't like their indictments as lengthy as judges do in the Eastern District of Virginia, where the Moussaoui and Reid cases will be tried. Still, the Reid inditment is curious for how little prosecutors have to say about what Reid did or did not do.
We know, for example, that dozens and dozens of people on that flight saw what Reid is alleged to have done. There are pictures and even, we are told, videotape of the incident and its aftermath. You would think, then, that the indictment against Reid would at a minimum contain specific allegations of precisely what Reid did and said during those critical moments on the airplane. This information isn't private or secret or classified; it's been reported all over the world. Does that mean that prosecutors simply didn't think they needed to include that detail at this time? Probably. But don't discount the possibility that the investigation into Reid's conduct and past is continuing at such a pace that the indictment filed Wednesday will be revised and expanded at some later date. Such a development would explain why prosecutors left so much unwritten in their initial charging document.
Finally, the Reid indictment is worth noting because it contains a charge based upon a new law enacted in the wake of the terror attacks. "Attempted wrecking of a mass transportation vehicle," the ninth count against Reid, comes directly out of the USA Patriot Act, marking the first time I believe that brand-new law has been used in a substantive way (other than for expanding potential sentences). It's not likely that prosecutors needed this particular charge in their bushel-full of counts against Reid, but it's there and their use of it suggests once again that in this legal war the government is going to use everything it can when it goes after the people it thinks have done or intend to do harm to Americans.
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