HUTCHINSON: Bush's Dubious Scorecard on Terrorist Prosecutions

In countless speeches and Congressional testimony, President Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft have publicly boasted that they have bagged and successfully prosecuted nearly 300 terrorists since the September 11 terror attacks.

This spruces up Bush and Ashcroft's claim that they are winning the war against terrorism, mutes criticism that the draconian sweeps and detentions of foreign born nationals and American citizens grossly violates their civil liberties, and it keeps Bush's popularity ratings, always supremely important to Bush in his battle for reelection, reasonably high.

The prosecutions also give Bush and Ashcroft more ammunition to push for even more sweeping anti-terrorist powers if, or more likely when, Ashcroft decides to shove off the drawing board his widely reported plan to radically revise the 2001 anti-terrorism Patriot Act. This would give even more spy power to the FBI and local law enforcement agencies, permit secret arrests, eliminate some aspects of judicial oversight, establish a DNA data base on anyone suspected of engaging in terrorism, and snatch citizenship from anyone who belongs to or supports a "disfavored political group." The Justice Department and the FBI would have the say-so over who and what those groups are. This would virtually guarantee that the number of arrests and prosecutions under the anti-terrorism laws would soar. But just who are these alleged terrorists that Ashcroft has prosecuted and how and why did they wind up a statistic on Bush's terrorist prosecution scorecard?

Since September 11, the FBI and the Immigration and Naturalization Service have detained or arrested hundreds of persons. Many have been denied a court hearing, legal counsel, and visits by relatives. Some have been held for months without any charges being brought against them. Several hundred have been deported. Despite the Justice Department's self-congratulatory victory back pat and bluster, only Zacarias Moussaoui has been charged with aiding and abetting the 911 terror attackers and the case against him, some legal experts say, is mostly circumstantial. It is also hopelessly stalled in the legal wrangle between Moussaoui's lawyers and Justice Department officials over the defense's access to witnesses.

Ashcroft has fared little better in his other big fish terrorist case against Chicago gang member and alleged Al-Qaeda fighter Jose Padilla. He has been held more than a year on suspicion of plotting to devastate a city, probably Washington D.C., with a radioactive "so-called "dirty bomb," Ashcroft branded him an "enemy combatant." But a federal appeals court in New York recently tossed a big curve at Ashcroft when it ruled that he could be tried in a civilian court and not as an "enemy combatant."

The other cases that the Justice Department dumped on its terrorist prosecution scorecard borders on the farcical. The accused have been small storeowners, cab drivers, and casual laborers. They were charged with such heavy-duty crimes as petty theft, peddling phony drivers licenses, and making unlicensed money transfers. They are almost all African or Middle Eastern immigrants, and many are U.S. citizens or have resided here for years. Once convicted, they received short jail sentences, probation, or community service. A recent Syracuse University study found that the median sentence for those prosecuted by the Justice Department in supposed international terrorism cases was a staggering two weeks. In many of the cases, the government later quietly admitted that many of the defendants were not involved with or connected to any terrorist groups.

But the mere accusation that they were involved with terrorists cast a permanent cloud over them. After their release, the FBI continued to hound them, and to grill their friends and family members on their activities. Though the Justice Department cleared them of terrorist activities, Ashcroft still includes them in the numbers that he cites as evidence that the government is winning the war against terrorism.

A handful of journalists and civil liberties groups have blasted the Justice Department for wasting time and resources branding and prosecuting petty crooks as terrorists while wildly inflating its terrorist prosecution numbers. The Department has reacted with silence, evasion, or claimed that revealing information about the cases would jeopardize on-going terrorist investigations. It has even turned the tables and claimed that discussing whom it has targeted and why they were targeted for prosecution would violate their civil liberties.

Bush and Ashcroft's bait and switch with the terrorist prosecution numbers demands a firm challenge, and action. A bill has been introduced in Congress in reaction to the increasingly botched Padilla case that while authorizing the detention of enemy combatants would also guarantee them fair process, counsel and judicial review. Congress should go further and authorize that those same legal protections extend to the small fry the Justice Department corralled in its terrorist net, and to stop shamelessly using them in a numbers game to claim victories that can hardly be called victories in the terrorist war.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.


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