- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 27, 2005

One of the most serious threats we face in this War for the Free World is the possibility terrorists with radioactive material will find ways to detonate it inside the United States.

Such an attack could involve a “dirty bomb,” capable of contaminating large parts of a city with dangerous levels of radiation, effectively making it uninhabitable for many years. Or the perpetrators might have access to a crude atomic device, capable of utterly destroying the targeted community.

How serious are these dangers? The former is likelier than the latter, but neither can be ruled out. We know al Qaeda is interested in such weapons of mass destruction. Reports have been persistent of plots involving radioactive material in one form or another.

It is the first responsibility of government to prevent these and other sorts of attacks on this country and its people. Consequently, we should not be surprised that federal authorities have used various means to detect radiation in unauthorized places. In fact, if no such efforts were mounted, those authorities would be derelict.

Yet, last week, U.S.News & World Report precipitated a new firestorm of criticism of the Bush administration when it disclosed such a program was indeed instituted shortly after September 11, 2001. Among the sites where air samples reportedly were taken for monitoring radiation levels were a number of “prominent mosques and office buildings” in suburban Washington and five other metropolitan areas. The surveillance reportedly was conducted from public property or publicly accessible spaces without search warrants.

In short order, the disclosure of this highly classified program, conducted by the FBI and the Energy Department’s Nuclear Emergency Support Team (NEST), prompted denunciations from organizations like the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). A Dec. 23, CAIR news release seized upon the report to promote the idea Muslims writ large were subjected to unwarranted government surveillance: “All Americans should be concerned about the apparent trend toward a two-tiered system of justice system, with full rights for most citizens, and another diminished set of rights for Muslims.”

Actually, the sorts of facilities reportedly monitored were in all likelihood under surveillance not because they are Muslim but probably because they have ties to the radical Islamofascist political ideology promoted by Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi sect.

Far from surveillance of all Muslims, or even Muslims per se, the federal focus would appear to be on sampling for radioactivity in places known to have ties to Islamist causes and organizations. For example, by some estimates, as many as 80 percent of American mosques have their financing held by Saudi or Saudi-associated institutions.

Typically, such financial support translates into ominous Saudi influence over such decisions as installing Wahhabi-trained imams to lead the congregation, the curriculum in mosque-associated schools (which may, like Saudi-backed madrasas elsewhere, offer only Koranic education), material disseminated in the mosques and their schools (including rabidly intolerant and jihadist publications produced by the Saudi government itself), the selection of congregants to make the required pilgrimage to Mecca (known as the haj) and use of members’ charitable contributions to the mosque (in some cases, these have gone to terrorist organizations).

Observing the air outside such facilities for radioactivity is not dastardly “profiling.” Rather, it is known in the medical lexicon as “triage” — the effort to use limited resources efficiently to minimize loss of life in emergency situations.

As with other controversies of the moment (notably, National Security Agency wiretaps of international communications involving al Qaeda-connected phone numbers and e-mail addresses in the United States, alleged CIA “secret prisons” in Europe and treatment of terror suspects that they — or the American advocates — might find “degrading”), one thing is clear: Such measures are the exception, not the norm.

Moreover, these initiatives have a common, single purpose. They are aimed at preventing another attack in this country by people determined to kill as many of us as possible. The test of whether these counterterrorism activities are justified should not be whether we would do exactly the same in peacetime.

Rather, the question should be: Would we forgive ourselves and our leaders if — out of an unwillingness to infringe in any way upon civil liberties in time of war — we fail to bring such tools to bear only to discover after another horrific attack that it could have been prevented by using these methods?

President Bush and his subordinates are exercising common sense, something generally in greater supply outside than inside the Beltway. They are worrying about real threats and trying to respond to and mitigate them in responsible ways.

While Islamist-sympathizers and their lawyers will continue caviling, we had all better hope the “triage” being sensibly applied today will spare us future horrific loss of life.

Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is president of the Center for Security Policy, a columnist for The Washington Times and lead author of “War Footing: Ten Steps America Must Take to Prevail in the War for the Free World.”

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