Attorney Andrew Cohen analyzes legal issues for CBS News and CBSNews.com.
Richard Reid finally admitted in court what the rest of the world has known since last December -- he tried to blow up an American Airlines' flight from Paris to Miami by igniting explosives hidden in his shoe. And he made his guilty plea defiantly and with a smile on his face, according to reporters who were inside federal court in Boston Friday.
He won't be smiling for long, I suspect, especially when he gets forwarded early next year to a maximum-security prison like the one near Florence, Colorado. There, he will soon realize that he's got to spend the next half century or so hoping that fellow inmates like the Unabomber, Theodore Kaczynski, won't take an interest in his particular brand of political philosophy. If John Walker Lindh proves that Islamic fanaticism can attract soft, sensitive types, Richard Reid proves that it can attract common thugs, too.
Reid's guilty pleas, offered with a smirk to U.S. District Judge William Young, save the government the time and money of going to trial. This financial and personal energy now can be devoted to future prosecutions and that's a good thing all around for the Justice Department. Reid's unilateral capitulation also precludes him from using the trial as a long-running public, political soapbox for his al Qaeda beliefs. He was able to get in a few jabs at America during the short plea hearing; multiply those comments by a thousand and you get a sense of what a Reid trial might have looked like.
Meanwhile, the government gave up nothing to get Reid to this point. No promises, no deals, federal prosecutors said immediately after the hearing was concluded, and I believe them. That means they still are the hammer and Reid still the anvil when it comes to sentencing. Now government officials can find out if he is interested in sharing al Qaeda secrets with interrogators in exchange for, say, a decade or so, off the recommended sentence. There's no guarantee that Judge Young will go along with such a recommendation, but word of Reid's cooperation would probably save the defendant a fairly decent chunk of years next to the Nichols and Kaczynskis and Youssefs of the world.
And if Reid is anything like other, well-known al Qaeda members who have been arrested or captured since last September, he'll probably start talking as soon as the interrogators close the door to the room. That's one of the fascinating trends that has emerged in the last few months about these purported anti-American zealots, especially the higher-profile ones. As soon as they are captured and faced with a choice between their allegiance to Osama bin Laden and his perverted cause and their own self-interest, they seem to chose the latter.
Too sweeping an assertion? Perhaps. After all, there are literally hundreds of suspected al Qaeda warriors living in those cages down in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba who haven't said "boo" about what their intentions might have been before they were apprehended. And it is entirely possible that all of these tattletales are practicing disinformation or misinformation to keep government officials guessing about al Qaeda's next move.
But how then do you explain John Walker Lindh, as devout a follower of Islamic fundamentalism as America could produce, who started telling Special Forces soldiers all he could about the Taliban and al Qaeda promptly after being "saved" by them last December? One day Lindh was willing to die in a fetid basement for the cause and the next day he was spilling his guts about bin Laden's three-pronged terror plan.
How about alleged 9-11 mastermind Ramzi Bin al-shibh? It didn't take him long to sing like a bird, either, if unnamed government sources are accurately portraying his cooperation so far since his capture in Pakistan last month. "I wouldn't quibble with that characterization," is how one such source responded when asked if Bin al-shibh was giving American intelligence sources good information. Bin al-shibh, incidentally, is the same fellow who boasted just a few weeks before his arrest that he wanted to send his 9/11 scrapbook to an American museum. It's funny what a few days with American and Pakistani interrogators will do for one's braggadocio.
And as helpful as Lindh and bin-al Shibh may be in the cause to destroy bin Laden and al Qaeda, they cannot compete in this Stoolie classification with Abu Zubaydah, an al Qaeda leader captured by U.S. forces months ago and reportedly kept on some remote island somewhere. Every time the government uncovers a terror lead it seems to trace back to something Zubaydah told his questioners at some point during his questioning. Abu Zubaydah is the poster child for these terror bullies; the kind who are awfully tough on the street, but then cave like folding chairs when the law comes calling.
Soon we will see where Reid fits into this theory. In court Friday, he reminded everyone that he is a follower of bin Laden. But the other al Qaeda finks said similar things and even Lindh seemed proud to tell the judge during his plea colloquy in July that he was a Taliban soldier.
My guess is that Reid's attorneys and prosecutors already are talking a bit about what they might be able to do for each other in advance of the Jan. 8 sentencing hearing. My second guess is that prosecutors would be willing to cut Reid a slight break on a sentencing recommendation in exchange for the valuable information he probably has about how al Qaeda operates. And my third and final guess is that this guy is going to turn state's evidence, too, sooner rather than later.
By Andrew Cohen