CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri is the last enemy combatant imprisoned in this country. Yet four years after his arrest, government officials still cannot agree on what threat he posed.
In a new allegation, former Attorney General John Ashcroft says al-Marri was sent to the United States a day before the Sept. 11 attacks to plan strikes on West Coast targets, including the tallest building in Los Angeles.
Ashcroft's claim -- made in a new book -- is the first time any U.S. official has directly linked al-Marri to the West Coast attacks that al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden allegedly hoped would follow the deaths of 3,000 people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.
Referring to Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was captured and interrogated, Ashcroft wrote, "I believe KSM had planned to use al-Marri to help facilitate this next wave of attacks focused on Los Angeles."
But three federal law enforcement officials asked about the allegation said they are mystified by Ashcroft's assertions. And a court document that alleges al-Marri -- a U.S.-educated citizen of Qatar and Saudi Arabia -- has deep ties to al-Qaida makes no mention of any role in an assault on the West Coast.
Speaking confidentially because they did not want a public fight with the former attorney general, Washington officials said the West Coast plot was broken up by arrests overseas that did not involve al-Marri.
They said that al-Marri was sent to the United States as an al-Qaida "sleeper agent" and was not assigned to prepare an attack on any specific target. They said al-Qaida leaders hoped he could hide unnoticed with his family in Peoria, Ill., where he had once lived and attended school.
"He was never given any assignment," said one of the officials familiar with government intelligence on the West Coast plot. "KSM may have considered him as an operative, but that's about it."
He acknowledged, however, that Ashcroft's contention "might still be a possibility."
The dispute is spilling onto the public stage as the Bush administration finds itself under mounting legal and public pressure to provide some form of justice for captives arrested in the U.S. and abroad. The disagreement also shows there are deep divisions within the government over what to make of enemy combatants.
Al-Marri's defense lawyers have called on the government to either charge him with a crime or set him free, saying his endless solitary confinement at a Navy brig near Charleston violates the founding principles of American jurisprudence.
But twice this year, different federal judges in South Carolina have denied their request and ruled that the Bush administration can continue legally -- and indefinitely -- to hold al-Marri as an enemy combatant.
Al-Marri's defense attorneys have appealed, and the government, seeking to cut them off again, recently signaled it might bring al-Marri before a military tribunal similar to those planned for Mohammed and other detainees at the U.S. naval base on Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Why Ashcroft is raising this assertion now is not clear. He did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.
Defense lawyers are angry that in his book, Ashcroft is making assertions that government prosecutors have never alleged in federal court in Charleston. The attorneys theorize that Ashcroft is merely trying to make al-Marri appear evil to support his own Justice Department policy of endlessly incarcerating enemy combatants.
"He's all spit and no sidewalk," defense lawyer Andrew J. Savage III of Charleston said of Ashcroft.
Jonathan L. Hafetz, a litigation specialist at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, who is assisting in the al-Marri defense, was equally dismissive. "If they have that evidence, they should present it," Hafetz said. "Put up or shut up."
In an apparent reference to Mohammed, Ashcroft wrote that the information on Al-Marri came from a "detained senior al-Qaida leader, whose credibility had been well established" and who identified Al-Marri as "an al-Qaida sleeper operative, someone inside the country, lying low but working all the while for the enemy."
Mohammed, who was captured in March 2003, is known to have named al-Marri as an al-Qaida operative during his interrogations.
He also gave lengthy, written testimony in this year's trial of Sept. 11 collaborator Zacarias Moussaoui. He described the West Coast plot in detail. But he did not name al-Marri as a co-conspirator.
He added that bin Laden personally "advised that a second wave attack should focus on the West, believing that security might be more lax there."
President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney recently stated that Mohammed has provided reliable information.
But Hafetz said any statements from Mohammed should be discounted because he allegedly was tortured by a technique that simulates drowning. Al-Marri should be released now, he said, because, "You can't hold somebody based on a statement from a guy who was water-boarded."
The three senior federal law enforcement officials in Washington sharply disagree with Ashcroft's premise that al-Marri was a key figure in the West Coast plot. They said the scheme fell apart after a "handful" of suspects were arrested overseas.
The two judges, federal Magistrate Robert Carr and U.S. District Judge Henry Floyd, who upheld Al-Marri's enemy combatant designation, based their rulings on a partially declassified summary from Jeffrey N. Rapp, a senior defense intelligence officer.
The summary says "multiple intelligence sources" confirmed Al-Marri was sent to the United States to explore how to hack into computer systems and disrupt U.S. financial systems.
Richard A. Serrano writes for the Los Angeles Times.