Ever since the September 11 attacks, President Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft have provided the American people with strong and courageous leadership in the war on terrorism. This newspaper supports many anti-terrorism changes made by the administration, including removing the statute of limitations for certain terrorism-related offenses; updating federal wiretap law to reflect new technological realities by permitting law-enforcement authorities to wiretap multiple telephones used by a suspect; and extending the amount of time that law enforcement can detain illegal aliens who are suspected terrorists before charging them with a crime.
But now, despite the best of intentions, Mr. Ashcroft is taking a series of “anti-terrorism” steps that simultaneously raise civil liberties concerns and threaten to squander resources on marginal problems while allowing more serious threats to go unchecked. In testimony Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Assistant Attorney General Michael Chertoff vigorously defended the administration’s policy of detaining hundreds of people for petty crimes and violations of U.S. immigration law. Mr. Chertoff suggested this is necessary in order to combat al Qaeda “sleeper cells” in the United States. But the administration’s approach could actually make the anti-terrorism effort more difficult. The Washington Post, in a front-page story earlier this week, quoted eight former senior FBI officials who expressed concern that the bureau has become so focused on “preventing terrorist acts by rounding up suspects early on” that it will inevitably force investigations to be shut down prematurely.
A former FBI executive assistant director, Oliver “Buck” Revell, expressed similar concerns about the bureau’s new investigative tactics in an interview with The Washington Times. Mr. Revell questioned the Department of Justice’s plan to conduct interviews with 5,000 men ages 18 to 33 from certain Middle Eastern countries who entered the United States after Jan. 1, 2000. First, he said, the plan is poorly targeted. Instead of trying to interview people from certain countries, it would make much more sense to focus the investigation on men who went to the same schools or lived in the same villages as known al Qaeda members. The way the interviews are being conducted now, Mr. Revell added, the agency is likely to squander resources on questioning men with little or no involvement in any terrorist activity. Second, he said, by targeting individuals from Arab and Muslim countries, the federal government creates the perception that it is engaged in racial profiling something that is likely to deter such persons from coming forward with information that could actually help apprehend terrorists.
On the positive side, in his testimony before the Judiciary Committee, Mr. Chertoff offered the most vigorous case yet for some of the new security measures. One is the proposal to allow the government a limited right to listen in on telephone conversations between terrorist suspects and their attorneys. Mr. Chertoff explained that, of the 158,000 inmates in federal prisons, this provision would only apply to 16 persons, 12 of them suspected bin Laden operatives. He read at length from an al Qaeda manual explaining how incarcerated terrorists could use telephone conversations with friends and attorneys to continue their dirty work from jail. In this context, it may not be unreasonable to give the government some limited authority to monitor these conversations.
All of that said, the administration must do a much better job of explaining to Congress and the American public the need for the tough new security measures it wants to implement. When it can’t do so as in the case of the 5,000 interviews noted above these flawed policies, including the noxious proposal for military tribunals, should be deep-sixed, and right away.