- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 17, 2006

When news broke this week of supposed disagreements between U.S. and British authorities over when to move against the suspects in the plot to bomb trans-Atlantic airliners, the conspiracy-minded sprang into action. Why did the Bush administration want to jump the gun? How come the British haven’t charged anyone with a crime? Was there even a threat?

If these were simply the ruminations of leftist partisans residing in the fever swamps, we’d be inclined to dismiss the whole thing. Unfortunately, the fever swamps are where many members of the mainstream media have chosen to live recently. So, with a September 11-like terrorist plot still fresh in the minds of many Americans, we need to state the obvious: The first priority of government is to protect its citizens, not obtain prosecutions.

What those now claiming that the lack of indictments is prima facie evidence of a hyped terror threat (or no threat at all) choose to ignore is the nature of the threat itself. Crimes are usually investigated after they’ve been committed. But when there are thousands of lives in the balance the federal government can’t wait until the terrorists strike. Sometimes stopping a terrorist attack means investigators have to forfeit the evidence beyond a reasonable doubt needed for a successful prosecution. This fundamental difference is why we have rejected the Democratic Party position that terrorism is primarily a matter of law enforcement.

British Home Secretary Jack Reid recently said that the terrorists are hoping to “abuse our open societies.” Part of what he meant was that the West operates under the rule of law, which places a presumption of innocence on the accused. Terrorists who know our legal systems also know how hard it can be to bring a prosecution until the moment of an attack. Additionally, the methods Western governments use to track suspected terrorists often cannot be used in a court of law, either because the method itself is classified or the evidence the method gathers is inadmissible.

For instance, take the arrest of Rashid Rauf in Pakistan just hours before the British moved on the suspects. The British consider Mr. Rauf one of the plot’s lead planners, although they have yet to ask for his extradition from Pakistan. It is reported that the details of the plot Mr. Rauf gave to the Pakistanis led directly to the British decision to move against the suspects. What we don’t know is how the Pakistanis got those details out of Mr. Rauf, but it’s likely that the methods they used wouldn’t stand up in a British court of law.

If Mr. Rauf or the other suspects never face British or U.S. justice, that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a threat. All it would mean is that the available admissible evidence failed to meet the high standards required to bring a successful prosecution. That’s part of the price of putting lives above trials.

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