Today, the court hears Abdullah al-Kidd's case against John Ashcroft over the Bush administration's detention practices
Abdullah al-Kidd wasn't what I expected when I met him on February 14 in a conference room at a legal firm in downtown Los Angeles. Al-Kidd's name may not be readily familiar, but his civil rights lawsuit against former Attorney General John Ashcroft has become one of the most politically charged cases of the post-September 11 era to reach the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed in October to hear the case.
The 39-year old Al-Kidd was born Lavoni Kidd but changed his name after converting to Islam while a student -- and star football running back -- at the University of Idaho. He met with me after flying in from Saudi Arabia, where he currently lives and teaches English, to finally tell his side of the story -- and the timing was propitious. Today, March 2, the Supreme Court hears arguments in this closely watched national security case, the ruling on which could determine, for the first time, whether a senior official of the Bush Administration can be held personally liable for U.S. detention practices adopted in the wake of September 11.
In the spring of 2002, al-Kidd found himself under FBI surveillance. Agents came to his home three times, questioning him about his "activities" and about a former co-worker, Sami Omar al-Hussayen, who was later indicted for visa fraud and tried in 2004 for, among other charges, conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists.
Before long, the FBI stopped coming around and al-Kidd thought the matter was closed. Meanwhile, FBI agents prepared an affidavit for his arrest as a material witness in al-Hussayen's case. The agents cinched an arrest warrant by telling a judge that al-Kidd had purchased a one-way, first class ticket to Saudi Arabia. In fact, he had purchased a round-trip, coach class seat to the country, where he planned to continue his religious studies.
At Dulles International Airport on March 16, 2003, as al-Kidd checked in for his flight, FBI agents arrested and again interrogated him. He was transferred on Con Air flights with convicted murderers and rapists, at gunpoint and in shackles and handcuffs, to prison facilities in three different states. Strip-searches were routine; guards at one prison left him sitting naked without privacy for hours.
Once released, he was ordered to live with his in-laws in Nevada and regularly to report to a probation officer, in addition to which he consented to unannounced home visits throughout the year he was under federal supervision. Having surrendered his passport, al-Kidd could not leave the country and travel within the U.S. was limited to four states. In July 2004, he lost his job with a Las Vegas defense contractor once they learned of his arrest, al-Kidd claims. In the end, he was never called to testify at al-Hussayen's trial, which ended without a single conviction.
Al-Kidd's attorneys argue that the material witness law adopted by the Justice Department and FBI after September 11 "was used in a sweeping and abusive manner." Like other Muslim men during that time, al-Kidd was put under surveillance, questioned repeatedly by the FBI and, without any evidence of criminal activity, arrested and detained for days in harsh conditions. The ordeal, al-Kidd told me, "crushed me and nearly ruined my life."
Ashcroft's position is that the case should be dismissed. In legal briefs he claims to have adhered to the Constitution in applying the material witness law, and that, as a government official, he is protected from prosecution by immunity.