The 'terrorist' batting average
By James Bovard | July 21, 2006
AFTER THE US Supreme Court's recent decision limiting military tribunals, Congress is scrambling to pass a law regarding trials for detainees at Guantanamo and elsewhere. Republicans are threatening to paint Democrats as soft on terrorism if they refuse to rubber stamp the Bush administration's existing practices, whereby special rules make it far easier to convict ``enemy combatants" in tribunals than in federal courts.
But, before sanctifying the tribunals, Congress should recognize that the federal government has far more strikeouts than hits when it comes to terrorist suspects.
In the six weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, the US government rounded up 1,200 people as suspected terrorists, or their supporters. All that was necessary for an Arab illegal immigrant to be considered a suspected terrorist was to encounter FBI agents in New York or New Jersey. None of the detainees proved to have links to the attacks.
The federal government has inflated the ``No Fly List" to 200,000 names. But the list has nabbed more members of Congress than it has terrorists. US Senator Edward M. Kennedy and US Representative John Lewis have been inconvenienced by it, and anyone named David Nelson is likely to face a major interrogation each time he flies. Federal officials make it very difficult to correct the list, thus tormenting citizens who are guilty of nothing more than having a name resembling a name suspected sometime by some government official.
Hundreds of disruptions have occurred at American airports since Sept. 11 after security breaches set off fears of terror attacks. The subsequent lockdowns boosted local television news ratings. Though no terrorists have been apprehended, thousands of Americans have been arrested at airports for violating Transportation Security Administration regulations or other rules.
Since 2001, federal officials have carried out wave after wave of arrests and crackdowns on alleged terrorist financing. But none of those apprehended in the United States have been linked to Al Qaeda. And the vast majority have been arrested merely for carrying more than $10,000 out of the country without filling out a government form. Because the $10,000 rule was enacted as part of the Patriot Act, federal officials portrayed all the arrests as victories over terrorism. This makes as much sense as assuming that anyone who fails to pay a parking ticket is linked to Hezbollah.
The National Security Agency's warrantless wiretaps also exemplify how terrorist suspicions mushroom. Shortly after news of the program leaked out, President Bush announced that ``the NSA program is one that listens to a few numbers called from the outside of the United States and of known Al Qaeda or affiliate people." But the program also listens to calls from inside the United States to abroad, and, in some cases, to calls exclusively within this country. Thousands of Americans have had their phones tapped without a warrant, but none has been charged with supporting or conspiring with Al Qaeda.
Federal officials have charged 10 times as many people in terrorist investigations as they convicted on terrorist-related charges. Bush declared a year ago that ``federal terrorism investigations have resulted in charges against more than 400 suspects, and more than half of those charged have been convicted." But only 39 people were convicted on crimes tied to terrorism or national security, a Washington Post analysis found.
Congress cannot blithely let the administration continue to rig detainee trials. Assistant Attorney General Steven Bradbury told Congress Tuesday that the administration wants flexibility on whether to use coerced confessions in the trials of detainees. The idea of relying on torture to gin up evidence should be confined to Monty Python movies, but the administration appears determined to revive medieval jurisprudence. (Bradbury stressed that ``there are gradations of coercion much lower than torture" -- not exactly reassuring given the administration's record of duplicity on torture.)
False accusations will not keep America safe. Simply because a government official suspects someone of wrongdoing proves nothing. The US government can devise a system to judge alleged terrorists without disgracing itself in the process.
James Bovard is the author, most recently, of ``Attention Deficit Democracy." ``Attention Deficit Democracy."