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Vanessa’s Big Story

journo-resize.JPGThe best thing about getting an “exclusive” is the exhilaration, the thrill of digging out new information which casts a big story in a different, and significant way. You get a warm feeling, a glow all over. And when competitors comes up with their own “exclusive,” you smile and grit your teeth and say, “Nice job” and try to submerge all those nasty green-eyed feelings of jealously.

The absolute best exclusive is not the one where you pry loose the lips of an insider, or take a tip over the phone and. if it checks out, run with it. The very best exclusive is the one that is just lying there, in plain sight, obvious to anyone who cares enough to root around and dig it out.

It is the stuff of the old radio program “The Big Story” – the Pall Mall cigarettes $500.00 award for outstanding journalism, a dramatization of “You lived it! You wrote it!” Today’s Pall Mall award would go to Vanessa Blum of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Her lead – while not exactly rubbing your nose in it – just notes that anyone could have pried this out from the government documents – but didn’t.

It’s a passing reference that could easily go unnoticed on the dozens of government wiretaps in the Miami trial of Jose Padilla.

It has nothing to do with terrorism or militant Islam or any of the crimes prosecutors hope to prove in court. It has to do with a tape of a radio interview Padilla gave in the mid 1990s about his troubled youth and conversion to Islam.

For the first time in this 45-minute radio interview we gain an insight into someone whom the public (including yours truly) and the police had basically dubbed “a thug,” back from the Middle East and “terrorist training,” only to be arrested at O’Hare airport and charged by the Attorney General of the United States himself, John Ashcroft, with planning to explode a radioactive “dirty bomb.”

But here is another Padilla in 1997, recently released from the South Flordia Broward County jail where he had served 303 days for firing pistol shots at a motorist who had offended him. Padilla reflected on his life as a young criminal,

I was really, really on the wrong path,” Padilla says of his brushes with the criminal justice system. “I know for sure now why I had to go through those things in life because now I’m a Muslim.”

His conversion was sparked, he says, by two visions he had in Broward County Jail. In the first, he saw himself walking in the desert wearing Muslim garb and a turban. In the second, a woman led him down a long hall toward a door. A light so intense it made his flesh tremble shone from behind the door, Padilla says.

“I was going to go inside because it was beautiful and I really wanted to go,” he says. Then a booming voice from behind the door told him “Not yet.”

Blum writes about Padilla’s feelings of despair:

“To be honest with you, it really didn’t matter to me whether I was dead or alive,” Padilla says. “I had no goals. It was like I was dead mentally.”

He began reading the Bible and resolved not to eat until God gave him a sign. While fasting, he experienced the two visions.

“It was something so real, like I was sleeping with my eyes open,” he says, struggling to put the experience into words.

After his release from jail, Padilla says he sought to obtain a Koran. At the same time he found work at a Taco Bell, managed by a Muslim, Mohammed Javed, who gave him a copy of the Koran. Blum continues with Padilla’s radio interview:

“I stuck to the book and just read and read and read,” Padilla says. “I read it once and then I went back and read it twice.”

Javed invited him to attend a South Florida mosque. When Padilla saw the clothing and the worshipers’ turbans, he recalled his vision.

“I said ‘yes’ this is it,” Padilla says. “This is what the Almighty wants me to be.”

At the end of the interview, the host asks Padilla for his advice to non Muslims.

“Don’t believe all the propaganda that is being portrayed out there about Islam, about terrorism and extremists,” Padilla replies.

Blum, in her exclusive story, offers insight into a Jose Padilla never seen or heard before. It makes one wonder why the prosecution, who know about the radio interview from the wiretaps, hadn’t offered that profile of Padilla.

The government had to have known about the 1997 interview because one of the co-conspirators in the case, Adham Housson, makes mention of listening to Padilla’s radio interview, and commenting, according to Blum’s story,

“I put the tape in and I was going to Hollywood, [Florida] and I listened to it on my way going and coming back,” Hassoun says on the 1997 wiretapped call. “It was good, man … ” Hassoun says. “I didn’t know what you have been through.”

Neither, it appears, did the rest of the nation. While Vanessa Blum’s story qualifies as a first rate scoop, does it come too late to humanize an individual who has been cast in lurid colors as a terrorist?

It’s five years after former Attorney General John Ashcroft held his 2002 news conference labeling Padilla a dirty (nuclear) bomber. It’s three years after former Deputy Attorney General James Comey labeled Padilla a “high rise gas stove bomber.”

It’s almost two years since Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, on November 22, 2005, remembered that— No, it wasn’t a dirty bomb that the man was planning to detonate here in
America, it wasn’t gas stoves in U.S. high rise buildings he was going to explode.. I’ve got it now. Aaah, yes. Padilla was conspiring to commit “violent jihad.”

After Jose Padilla has been branded with more labels than Phineas Fogg’s steamer trunk, will one reporter’s humanizing depiction transform his image? Will Padilla’s surprising epiphany –almost like Malcolm Little becoming Malcolm X–ever reach the jury?

The trial begins week seven Monday.

(With Rachel M. Koch)

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Lewis Z. Koch

Lewis Z. Koch