WASHINGTON/LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Prison life has been eased for convicted “shoe bomber” Richard Reid, boosting concerns about what will happen when President Barack Obama moves dozens of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detainees to U.S. soil.
Critics say the disclosures about Reid in court documents underscore the tendency in U.S. prisons to loosen restrictions over time, posing risks if applied to Guantanamo detainees once branded “enemy combatants.”
“The system will default toward allowing more visitation, access and communication,” said Stewart Baker, who served as general counsel at the National Security Agency under presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
“By the time we realize that it’s a bad idea, a lot of damage could have been done,” said Baker, who also served at the Department of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush and is now a partner at Steptoe & Johnson LLP.
Critics worry extremists will use the prisons to recruit inmates to their cause and spread propaganda inside and out.
Reid, sentenced to life for trying to blow up a jumbo jet in 2001 with explosives in his shoes, was moved from a special isolation unit of the so-called Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado, into another area where his mail and contacts with visitors and other inmates are subject to less scrutiny.
His conditions were relaxed in June after he filed a court challenge and went on a hunger strike. In August he moved to the general population. With good behavior, the British-born follower of Osama bin Laden might be transferred in future years to a less secure prison facility, court papers said.
Obama plans to close Guantanamo detention center in response to criticism by human rights activists in both the United States and abroad, although his January 22 deadline will likely be missed.
Administration officials argue there is no need to worry, citing the 300 individuals convicted on terrorism-related charges held already in U.S. prisons. They say Reid and similar inmates are closely monitored by prison officials.
The Obama administration insists it is sensitive to the challenge of preventing Guantanamo inmates in the U.S. criminal justice system from using the courts and prisons as pulpits for anti-American rhetoric.
To that end, officials are considering a high-security prison in rural Illinois for the detainees and likely will impose “special administrative measures” to tightly curb contacts like those put on Reid for six-plus years.
“We will not move any detainees to the United States unless and until we are convinced they will be held safely and securely in facilities that satisfy all our security concerns,” Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd said.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder decided to try the self-professed mastermind of the September 11, 2001, attacks and co-conspirators in New York. He inspected the facilities last week in Manhattan where they will be held.
Kenneth Wainstein, who ran the Justice Department’s national security division under President George W. Bush, said restrictions should depend on the detainee.
While Reid simply carried out orders, someone like Omar Abdel-Rahman, the “blind sheik” imprisoned for helping plot the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, is considered a leader they would want to keep from communicating.
“It is too simplistic to predict either that all detainees will be forever locked down incommunicado or alternatively that they will all be completely free to communicate with other terrorists and radicalize fellow inmates,” Wainstein said.
Security will be “based on a risk-based analysis.”
Critics say prisoners like Reid could prove a propaganda boon to U.S. enemies if given enough leeway.
“The idea that from the bowels of the worst the American justice system can do, this person is still breathing defiance and expressing joy at every casualty in Afghanistan and the like, has a profound propaganda value for al Qaeda, and (we) are doing ourselves grave harm if we allow that,” Baker said.
Reid, who pleaded guilty to trying to blow up a transatlantic flight three months after the September 11, 2001, attacks, is one of the more notorious of some 400-plus inmates in Supermax situated 90 miles south of Denver and considered the most secure lockup in the U.S. prison system.
Others at Supermax who have their communications severely limited are Zacarias Moussaoui, serving a life sentence for conspiring with al Qaeda in the September 11 attacks and those convicted of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
The judge who sent Moussaoui to prison told him, “You will die with a whimper. The rest of your life you will spend in prison. You will never again get a chance to speak.”
For the first 6 1/2 years of his sentence, Reid was confined 23 hours a day in Supermax to a 75.5-square-foot (7-square meter) cell and had virtually no contact with the outside world beyond his lawyers and immediate family members.
He petitioned a federal court in Denver and earlier this year went on a hunger strike asserting he was being denied his rights to practice his Sunni Muslim faith, or to learn Arabic, order books and magazines or watch television news.
That hunger strike apparently ended and he was moved into the general population wing, where his visits and mail are no longer routinely monitored by the FBI, Supermax prison official Mark Collins said in court papers last month.
The move came after an annual Justice Department review found he has not been seeking to commit violence. Now he can talk with other inmates without monitoring, order books and magazines with prison approval, receive non-family visits and speak with the media.
Reid’s contacts with the outside world remain subject to scrutiny. Prison authorities have limited his correspondence to a few immediate relatives because he still is considered a security risk, Collins said.
In 2005, three men convicted in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing at Supermax were found to have corresponded with Islamic militants in Spain, prompting the Bureau of Prisons to overhaul and beef up how it monitored communications.
Howard Safir, a former top U.S. Marshals Service official and New York City police commissioner who works as a security consultant, said the prison system is sound but it only takes one breach to do damage.
“As good as we are, we have to be right 100 percent of the time,” he said. “Al Qaeda only has to be right once.”
Additional reporting by Robert Boczkiewicz in Denver; Editing by Howard Goller and Bill Trott