Reuters - December 20, 2005
Mixed results in legal fight against terrorism
By Deborah Charles
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Four years after September 11, the Bush administration has claimed some legal victories in its war on terrorism, but critics say there have been few major convictions and not a single trial of anyone caught trying to carry out an attack.
In a media blitz over the past few weeks to build support for renewal of parts of the Patriot Act -- passed after September 11, to expand authority of the federal government to track down terrorism suspects -- Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has recited a laundry list of legal victories by the government.
He said they range from "shoebomber" Richard Reid to September 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui to university student Ahmed Abu Ali, who was found guilty last month of conspiring with al Qaeda and plotting to kill President George W. Bush.
"It is hardly the case, as some have sought to suggest, that we've disrupted only a handful of terrorist plots since 9/11. Far from it," Gonzales told the Council on Foreign Relations this month in a speech.
Other prosecutorial victories mentioned by Gonzales included John Walker Lindh, who fought with the Taliban against U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan; Uzair Paracha, who was convicted of aiding al Qaeda and two Yemeni men who were accused of funneling $20 million to Osama bin Laden.
But while critics acknowledge the government had scored some legal victories, they questioned how major they were.
"What's the most remarkable fact is that we have yet to see any al Qaeda terror cell uncovered in the United States," said Georgetown University law professor David Cole. "Apart from Richard Reid, we have yet to see any prosecution of any individual attempting to engage in a terrorist act," he said.
Reid was sentenced to life imprisonment two years ago but the case did not go to trial because he pleaded guilty to eight charges stemming from his failed attempt in December 2001 to blow up a transatlantic flight with explosives stuffed in his shoes.
Further, Cole said he believed that more than 5,000 foreigners were detained in the days after September 11, and none was convicted of a terrorist crime. Nor was any of about 80,000 men from certain Middle Eastern nations called in for fingerprinting and registration charged with terrorism.
Avi Cover, a lawyer with Human Rights First, said the government's prosecutorial record was a "mixed bag." "What's been most problematic is a lot of the puffery and less than full candor on the part of the administration," said Cover, who mentioned cases that were announced with great fanfare but then appeared to fizzle out.
One example is that of Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen held in military custody for more than three years on suspicion of plotting a "dirty bomb" attack. After lengthy legal battles over whether the government could hold a U.S. citizen in a military jail without charge, Padilla was indicted with four others last month for being part of a support cell providing money and recruits for a jihadist campaign overseas.
The 11-count indictment included no mention of the accusations made by the Justice Department after Padilla's arrest in May 2002 that he had plotted with al Qaeda to set off a radioactive "dirty bomb."
"If you look at their record in the criminal context, they have obtained some convictions but they have also faced some fairly significant defeats," said Cole.
For example, in a case that had been touted by the government as an example of how Patriot Act powers had been used, a federal jury cleared a former Florida professor earlier this month of some terrorism-related charges and failed to reach a verdict on others.
Sami al-Arian had been accused of raising money and providing support for Islamic Jihad -- a Palestinian group the United States designated as a terrorist organization in 1997. The jury was deadlocked on nine counts, including some of the most serious.