Thursday, September 23, 2004


By William Fisher

How do we know if we are being successful in our ‘war on terror’?

Well, we haven’t been attacked since 9/11, but maybe no one’s tried. We can’t know the answer to that question because giving us the answer would compromise our national security. We only know that our government tells us we’re safer than we were in September 2001, though ‘not yet safe’.

Maybe a more practical way to judge how we’re doing is by examining the record of the Justice Department in convicting bad guys. After all, Attorney General Ashcroft does seem to hold lots of press conferences announcing various prosecutions. How are we doing on that basis?

Between September 11, 2001 and September 1, 2004, the Justice Department had obtained exactly one terror-related conviction. Moroccan immigrants Karim Koubriti, 26, and Abdel-Ilah Elmardoudi, 38, were convicted in Detroit in June 2003 of conspiring to provide material support to terrorism and document fraud. Ahmed Hannan, 36, also of Morocco, was convicted of document fraud. A fourth defendant was acquitted. But the Detroit prosecutions were deeply flawed by l prosecutorial malfeasance, and on September 2nd, after the defendants had spent more than three years in jail, their conviction was thrown out

So, as David Cole points out in the October 4th issue of The Nation, “Until that reversal, the Detroit case had marked the only terrorist conviction obtained from the Justice Department's detention of more than 5,000 foreign nationals in antiterrorism sweeps since 9/11. So Ashcroft's record is 0 for 5,000.”

We’ll never know much about most of those 5,000. The reason is that they were rounded up and detained by what used to be the Immigration and Naturalization Service, now part of the Department of Homeland Security. They were locked up in INS jails -- America’s most secret prison system. Some were deported for visa violations – not for terrorism – and others were eventually released. No one was ever charged with any terror-related crime.

A report by the Justice's Department’s own Inspector General confirmed that hundreds of non-nationals picked up in the post September 11th sweeps in the US were deprived of basic human rights. Most of those detained were Muslim males of Middle Eastern or South Asian origin.

At the same time, the Bush Administration is reaching out to the Arab-Americans and moderate Muslims -- and harassing its members simultaneously.

For example, people are being denied entry to our country based on who-knows-what. The latest case involves Yusuf Islam, the former pop singer Cat Stevens, who was removed from a plane bound for Washington from London when his name showed up on a US watch list. A department of Homeland Security (DHS) spokesman said Islam was denied admission to the United States "on national security grounds."

Then there’s the case of Tariq Ramadan, a well-known Swiss moderate Islamic scholar named by Time magazine as one of the hundred most likely innovators of the twenty-first century. Ramadan, who condemned 9/11 and has long argued for Islamic moderation, was on his way to teach at Notre Dame’s International Peace Studies Institute. The Department of Homeland Security revoked his work visa under a provision of the USA Patriot Act. No reason given.

Or the case of Oregon lawyer Brandon Mayfield, a 37-year-old convert to Islam, who was held for several weeks as a material witness because the FBI charged – in error –that his fingerprints were found on a backpack used in the Madrid train bombings. At least he got an apology from the Justice Department – more than the Detroit defendants ever heard.

Meanwhile, only ‘a few bad apples’ have been held accountable for the abuses at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and other military prisons, and the CIA continues to play its traditional dirty tricks. One of the most egregious of these is known as ‘rendering’, which means sending someone in its custody to a third country whose prisons are known to practice torture. One such victim, a Canadian citizen, was detained at New York’s Kennedy International Airport and then deported to Syria, the country of his birth. He was imprisoned for almost a year, claims he was tortured while in Syrian detention, and is suing the US Government. Two others were kidnapped from Sweden and flown in a CIA Gulfstream to Egypt, where they were thrown in jail and allegedly tortured.

And, were it not for a couple of wise Supreme Court decisions, the US military would still be locking people up forever, without access to hearings, lawyers, or family.

Meanwhile, the Muslim-American community is being scared out of its wits. Federal, State and Municipal law enforcement are reporting record numbers of hate crimes, including murder, beatings, arson, attacks on mosques, shootings, vehicular assaults and verbal threats. The FBI reports that anti-Islamic hate crime incidents rose 1,600% in the past year. But FBI Director Robert Mueller still says he is “vitally concerned that the rights of Arab Americans, Muslims, and Sikh be protected".

Of course we need to be vigilant. But at some point, vigilance becomes paranoia. I suggest that we reach that point when we’re willing to sacrifice the civil liberties we’re asking the rest of the world to emulate.

About the writer: William Fisher, a former journalist, has managed economic development programs in the Middle East for the US State Department and the US Agency for International Development, and served in the international affairs area in the Kennedy Administration.