America - Andrew Stephen sees new spin in a US arrest

The announcement of a supposed terrorist's arrest, after a fortnight of public feuding between the F

It's the name Americans should be concerned about first. I'm not talking about Abdullah al-Muhajir, the supposed dirty bomber apprehended in the nick of time by the good guys of the FBI and CIA. I'm talking about Jose Padilla, the Puerto Rican name that the 31-year-old US citizen and former Catholic used before he converted to Islam while in prison in Florida a decade ago. Writing about Richard Reid, Britain's own would-be bomber (aka Abdel Rahim), a columnist whose name I am too modest to mention prophesied on 7 January: "But there is an equally blatant trend in the United States that has recently received no attention in the US media: namely, that many prisoners in domestic jails, too, are being recruited to Islam."

This, as a correspondent pointed out, does not mean that these prisoners are also being converted to terrorism. But here are two examples, from Britain and now the US, where just such was the case: in the good name of Islam, al-Qaeda cynically inculcated two small-time, ill-educated hoodlums into its sinister world of religious fanaticism, explosive-wiring and (apparently) radiological dispersion bombs. The likes of Reid and Padilla are considered expendable trial-runners for major projects - to be carried out by clean-living, non-criminal fanatics like Mohammad Atta on 11 September. Just as the case of Reid has serious implications for Britain - his trial has not come up, but we should not forget about the mid-Atlantic mass murder he all but committed last December - so Padilla's case is now deeply worrying for the US.

Second, Americans should be worrying about their increasingly obtuse attorney-general, John Ashcroft, and the timing of his announcement of Padilla's arrest. The arrest at Chicago's O'Hare Airport was on 8 May, more than a month before Ashcroft went to the trouble last Monday of having a live telelink set up between Washington and Moscow, where he was visiting. It does not take a genius to realise that this was news management at its most calculating: for the previous fortnight, Ashcroft's FBI and the CIA had been engaged publicly in internecine warfare about who was least vigilant before 11 September.

So a diversionary news story was found - and one that seemed to show the FBI and CIA co-operating like dearest blood brothers. Ashcroft's announcement was further evidence of the politicisation of 11 September. And, contrary to what the Republicans are saying, the Democrats are not primarily responsible; the Bush administration itself is shamelessly willing to exploit post-11 September events for political ends, with mid-term elections due in November.

Third, Americans should be worried that a US citizen is being held indefinitely without trial, with no charges against him, and with little or no access to a lawyer. I've pointed out before that as a non-US citizen, I could be arrested, put before a military tribunal and summarily executed in secret - but US citizens such as John Walker Lindh (captured fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan) have not hitherto faced such treatment. I got into an argument with a US Department of Justice official when we were both on a panel on terrorism the other day: I said that America had, in effect, introduced internment, just as the British did in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. He heatedly denied this, saying: "We're not like the British." But even if we discount the thousand or so imprisoned here on mostly minor and trumped-up visa violations - people who would not have been in prison prior to 11 September - there can be no doubt that Bush's proclamation that Padilla is an "enemy combatant" and therefore liable to a lifetime's incarceration if he, Ashcroft, et al deem it desirable, amounts to internment. Another US citizen, Yasser Essam Hamdi, was flown to Guantanamo, until the authorities realised he was American - so he, too, is held without charge or trial, in Virginia.

Fourth, Americans should be asking: if US citizens are guilty, why can't they be charged openly in court? The problem is the lack of evidence. We must assume that Padilla, having travelled to Afghanistan and then to Pakistan, was up to no good. But he seems already to have become a PR pawn in the great intelligence feuds of 2002: "I want to emphasise that there was not an actual plan. We stopped this man in the initial planning stages," said Paul Wolfowitz, deputy defence secretary. Quite so.

Then, on Tuesday, Wolfowitz went further: "This man actually thought he could get them [radioactive raw materials] from places like university labs", which sounds an unlikely aspiration for a 31-year-old thug. Wolfowitz then added, alarmingly: "I have no idea how difficult that would be" - shouldn't he, as deputy defence secretary, have some idea? - "but there is nuclear material around in a lot of places." Peculiarly unsatisfactory comments all round, about an episode that leaves a peculiarly unpleasant and unresolved taste in the mouth.