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Thursday, March 16, 2006
The Competenence Issue and the Domestic Side of the WoT
By Dr. Steven Taylor @ 3:10 pm

There are a variety of reasons why the Bush administration, despite a deep well of goodwill and high expectations post-9/11, is inspiring doubts from the population.

Specifically in the domestic side of the war on terror, the LAT notes that the Moussaoiui case, where prosecutorial misconduct will affect his sentence, is hardly the only example of administration failing in the area of the prosecution of terrorists: Moussaoui Case Is Latest Misstep in Prosecutions.

Indeed, the Moussaoui case may be the least of the mistakes, as he will get life in prison despite the attempt by a prosecutor to coach seven TSA witnesses.

Here are some of the others.

  • Jose Padilla:
    Gen. John Ashcroft announced in 2002 that Jose Padilla, a Bronx-born Muslim, had been arrested on suspicion of “exploring a plan to build and explode a radiological dispersion device, or ‘dirty bomb,’ in the United States.”

    Padilla was held nearly four years in a military brig without being charged. This year, as his lawyers appealed his case to the Supreme Court, the administration indicted him in Miami on charges of conspiring to aid terrorists abroad. There was no mention of a “dirty bomb.”

  • Brandon Mayfield:
    n May 2004, the FBI arrested Brandon Mayfield, an Oregon lawyer and Muslim convert, saying that his fingerprint was on a bag containing detonators and explosives linked to the Madrid train bombings that had killed 191 people two months before. The former Army officer was held as a material witness even though officials in Spain considered the fingerprint evidence inconclusive.

    Mayfield was freed after almost three weeks in custody and received an apology from the FBI, which blamed the misidentification on a substandard digital image from Spanish authorities.

    The Mayfield case is an especially egregious error, as the man’s picture was shown around the world as a potential al Qaeda member. It is hard to erase that. Further, three week is jail, when one is innocent, is a horrible injustice-imagine how disruptive that would be to your life, not to mention having to actually be in jail.

  • Some others:
    • A computer science student in Idaho was accused of aiding terrorists when he designed a website that included information on terrorists in Chechnya and Israel. A jury in Boise acquitted Sami Omar Al-Hussayen of the charges in June 2004.

    • A Florida college professor was indicted on charges of supporting terrorists by promoting the cause of Palestinian groups. A jury in Tampa acquitted Sami Al-Arian in December.

    • Two Detroit men arrested a week after the Sept. 11 attacks were believed to be plotting a terrorist incident, in part based on sketches found in their apartment. A judge overturned the convictions of Karim Koubriti and Abdel-Ilah Elmardoudi after he learned that the prosecutor’s key witness had admitted lying to the FBI, a fact the prosecutor had kept hidden.

The only success that comes to mind is that of the Lackawanna Six.

The CSM also notes:

Capt. James Yee, a Muslim chaplain at the Guantánamo prison camp where many terrorist detainees are held, was arrested and accused of espionage. writes that, “When returning from duty at the Guantanamo Bay naval base, he was arrested on September 10, 2003, in Jacksonville, Florida and charged with five offenses: sedition, aiding the enemy, spying, espionage, and failure to obey a general order. He was then transferred to a United States Navy brig in Charleston, South Carolina.” CNN reported at the time that he might also be charged with treason.

The military never said what country Yee was supposed to have been spying for. He was held for 76 days in detention. All court-martial charges against him were “quietly” dropped in March 2004. The US military has never offered an explanation for its actions, or an apology to Yee.


The LA Weekly reported on March 1 that there are now doubts about the FBI case against a father and son accused of terrorism in Lodi, Calif. That case went to trial in February. The Los Angeles Times also reported Wednesday “terrorism experts and even federal officials” are expressing serious doubts about the testimony from the government’s key informant in the case, who said he saw Al Qaeda’s number two, Ayman Zawahiri, in 1999 in Lodi. Government sources say that while Zawahiri was in the US in the early 90s, he had not returned to the US since 1995 at the latest.

The piece also notes the following stats:

The Bush administration says that more than 400 people have been charged with terrorism-related crimes and that 228 have been convicted. But LA Weekly points out that “the vast majority of these cases have involved minor crimes not directly related to terrorism, such as immigration violations.” In June 2005, The Washington Post looked at 361 “terrorism-related” cases, as identified by the Justice Department, and found that only 39 convictions for crimes related to national security or terrorism.

In general, this an unimpressive record, and also one brings into question precisely how concerned we should be about domestic terror cells and/or the actual ability of the federal government to catch them if they are out there.

Another thought: the administration has argued that it needs expanded powers via the USA PATRIOT Act, and the NSA wiretapping program, yet we haven’t really caught anybody of great significance. Indeed, the most significant domestic catch to date is Moussaoui, who was caught pre-9/11.

Of course, the 9/11 hijackers themselves weren’t caught-and obviously we want to caught any such future group. I am not saying that there is no potential threat, but there are significant question here. And, of course, I have long thought and argued that the best way to ward out further domestic terrorism is the disruption of terror networks abroad. I fear that, on balance, once they are in the US, catching them is a difficult proposition.

Update: Some minor editing was done several hours after the original post to correct a few typos/errors.

Filed under: US Politics, War on Terror, Criminal Justice | |Send TrackBack


  1. And the administration has direct control over who procecutes a case?

    Comment by Bithead — Thursday, March 16, 2006 @ 3:26 pm

  2. Well, we are talking about federal prosecutions by the federal Department of Justice in the context of the President himself asking for (or asserting) various powers to deal with this problem.

    As such, who do you think should be held responsible?

    Do I think that the President is personally responsible for every error? No, that is obviously ridiculous, but it the overall approach is being directed by appointees of the President. As such, the buck does have to stop, ultimately, with him.

    Comment by Dr. Steven Taylor — Thursday, March 16, 2006 @ 3:30 pm

  3. Further, the administration has directly told us that we need to be wary of further terrorist activity in the US. Now, as I note in the post, either we aren’t doing a very good job of catching these people, or there aren’t as many to catch as the President thinks there are.

    Comment by Dr. Steven Taylor — Thursday, March 16, 2006 @ 3:32 pm

  4. You raise something here that is one of the really critical questions in the effort to prevent Islamist (or other foreign-originating) terrorist attacks. I do not know what the answer is, but I am extremely skeptical that they key to prevention is “the disruption of terror networks abroad” unless by abroad, you mean in London, Hamburg, Canada, etc. I just think there is not a lot we can do about training and recruitment in countries where the population is generally hostile to US presence; in fact, I suspect our presence there is counterproductive in most cases.

    On the other hand, intelligence work, including surveilance-with proper checks, of course-can disrupt potential attackers as they enter the USA or after they have arrived. The 9/11 plot could have been unravelled with better information sharing (and probably with more vigilance from the NSC and White House, when “the system was blinking red,” as the 9/11 Commission puts it), and the LAX plot was stopped by an alert border guard at the Washington-BC border. Neither could have been disrupted by “disrupting” the camps and the recruitment centers in Afghanistan, Pakistian, and other countries, because you do not know who the actual attackers are at the stage that they are being recruited and trained.

    Naturally, if there are camps in the open somewhere, they can be raided from the air or ground, but as the 9/11 Commisison also notes, it was not practical before 9/11 to do much more than the missile attacks Clinton ordered (because you could not get cooperation regionally for anything more) and after 9/11 it was far, far too late (as Michael Scheurer has noted). In fact, even a year or more before 9/11 it was probably too late for any attacks by US forces in Afghanistan to have stopped the attacks.

    Sorry for rambling. I do not know the answer here, but I strongly suspect that it is disruption of those in the “West” (including on our own soil) and at the borders that is most effective, not in foreign countries (if that means outside of Western countries).

    Comment by Matthew Shugart/Fruits & Votes — Thursday, March 16, 2006 @ 3:34 pm

  5. I would take a rather broad view of such “disruption” to include far better human intelligence abroad than we had/currently have. Also law enforcement cooperation aborad.

    I also think that military actions, such as the action in Afghanistan, are sometimes necessary.

    I need to get back to work, so I will leave it at for at least the moment.

    Comment by Dr. Steven Taylor — Thursday, March 16, 2006 @ 3:41 pm

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