THE BLOG

Terrorists or Maybe Not

03/04/2008 09:44 am 09:44:00 | Updated May 25, 2011

With the presidential election looming and the candidate field soon to be winnowed down to the two finalists, it is about time for the United States government to be honest with the public regarding the terrorism problem. All of the candidates have waxed large about terrorism and have promised that they would be resolute against it. The public expects no less. John McCain, in particular, will be playing the terrorism card over and over again, stating his belief that he is the only one who can make the nation secure. Both Republicans and Democrats have supported budget-busting funding that has created the monstrous and dysfunctional Department of Homeland Security while also feeding out-of-control growth at the FBI, Pentagon, and in the intelligence community. No politician is making any attempt to challenge the presumptions being made about the domestic terrorist threat or to question the extent to which it might not exist at all. Perhaps they should be.

The closest to a generic comment of any kind came recently from the FBI's assistant director in charge of its counter-terrorism division Joseph Billy, speaking in London on February 27th. Billy said "I do not have an al-Qaeda cell that I could put on the board for you. We have not seen that. We have seen individuals with some links -- some indirect ties, some more direct -- but to have (a) cell that is plotting and moving forward has yet to be found." So much for seven years of effort at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars.

It is indisputable that there has been no terrorist attack within the United States in nearly seven years. That could be due to effective police and intelligence work and credit should be given where credit is due, but it also might be attributable to there being a lack of genuine terrorists inside the United States, something that Billy might even be suggesting.

Being charged in court with a terrorism offense is particularly serious because it carries with it a presumption of guilt under the assumption that the government would not cry wolf unless a wolf were indeed present. But consider for a moment the arrests that have been made in the past seven years. There have been numerous terrorist cases in the United States since 9/11, though it also is true that many individuals arrested for terrorism eventually plea bargain into something else or are released due to lack of evidence. In spite of all the detentions, not a single individual or group has been linked to al-Qaeda. Nor has a single individual or group actually had the capability to carry out a terrorist attack. Most arrests in terrorism cases come about after informants are inserted into the group that is being targeted, suggesting that the government itself might have had a hand in motivating and guiding individuals harboring a grievance and little more to turn them into something that might be labeled "terrorist." It is not unreasonable to assume that the informants, whose compensation is based on production, might well be unreliable witnesses and, in some cases, could have been the actual instigators of the never-carried-out terrorist acts.

One can cite many terrorism cases that are completely lacking in credibility but which obtained convictions anyway, starting with the Detroit Four, the Lackawanna Seven, the Virginian Paint Ball Jihadis, the Miami Seven Haitians, and the Fort Dix Six Bosnians. And then there is the bizarre case of 23-year-old Hamid Hyat, a farm worker and sometime ice cream salesman, who was convicted of supporting terrorists in 2006 after it was alleged that he had gone to a training camp in Pakistan. He denied the government charges, which were based on an interrogation by two FBI officers who reportedly pressured him to confess. His father Umer Hyat admitted to having knowledge of an underground terrorist training camp in Pakistan where thousands of men were seen pole vaulting wearing ninja masks. The absurdity of the confession did not faze the jury, which reportedly was pressured to bring in a conviction and did so.

And then there is the case of "dirty bomber" Jose Padilla. Padilla never performed anything even loosely describable as terrorism, though he was a classic outsider and wannabe, a former Hispanic gang member who had converted to Islam and traveled to central Asia. Though a US citizen, he was held on various pretexts for five years without trial. He may have been tortured and may be mentally impaired as a result. He was never charged with attempting to construct or use a "dirty bomb" and was finally convicted on charges of conspiracy when the prosecutors managed to convince an accommodating jury that, inter alia, when he spoke on the phone and said nothing incriminating it was because he was speaking in code. He will now spend 17 years in prison.

Terrorism overseas is real and it kills people, particularly in the countries that the US has liberated, Iraq and Afghanistan. But the long list of essentially bogus terrorism convictions in America inevitably raises the question whether there actually is any real terrorism present in the United States. Given all the time and effort put into dealing with the terrorism problem, the authorities should have an answer to a simple question. There is either a serious terrorist threat inside the United States or there isn't and the American people should be told the truth.

This is not to suggest that the FBI should come completely clean regarding what it is doing or what it knows. If it is running operations where it is surveilling terrorists or their supporters secrecy must be maintained. But a straightforward presentation of the nature of the evidence relating to whether or not there is an actual terrorist presence in the US is not an unreasonable expectation. Based on it, an informed public would be able to determine whether the terrorism threat has been hyped beyond all belief to heighten fear for political reasons. The fear mongering has resulted in a political consensus that supports inflated budgets for defense contractors while providing job security for government bureaucrats. The questions surrounding the domestic terrorism issue are important because the huge commitment of resources pursuing miscreants who possibly don't exist could instead be diverted to areas of national concern like reducing the exploding deficit or addressing the health care crisis.