Thursday, May 10, 2007

The New Jersey store clerk whose tip led to the arrest of six terror suspects needs legislative protection from being sued as a “John Doe” or whistleblower, lawmakers said yesterday.

“The events in Fort Dix are just another reminder of the need for this legislation,” said Rep. Steve Pearce, New Mexico Republican and author of legislation to protect “John Doe” passengers being sued by a group of Muslim imams for reporting their suspicious behavior that got the imams removed from an airline flight.

“We owe a debt of gratitude to this individual for alerting authorities to this potential terrorist attack and thwarting what could have been a terrible disaster. I can only imagine how grateful the men and women at Fort Dix and their families are for the courage of this person to take action when he saw something suspicious,” Mr. Pearce said.

U.S. authorities arrested six foreign-born Muslims suspected of plotting to attack the New Jersey fort and kill “as many American soldiers as possible … in the name of Allah.” The FBI was alerted to the group by a clerk at the Circuit City store who had been asked to copy to a video disc images of the men test-firing weapons in the mountains and calling for jihad.

“If we didn’t get that tip,” said U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie in New Jersey, “I couldn’t be sure what would happen.”

M. Zuhdi Jasser, director of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, agrees that the FBI’s arrests show the need to protect the principle of “see something, say something.”

“What if this ‘John Doe’ had contrarily chosen to be silent due to a fear of litigation?” Dr. Jasser said.

House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, and Rep. Peter T. King of New York, the ranking Republican on the Homeland Security Committee, used a procedural tactic to add the Pearce language to a rail and transportation security bill in March. The amendment was passed, with unanimous approval of Republicans and support from 105 Democrats.

“A courageous act such as this one should not only be commended, it should be touted as a positive example of what citizens can do help prevent acts of terrorism here at home,” Mr. Boehner said.

“It’s critical that Democrats leave the Pearce language intact during conference negotiations so this kind of citizen participation is fostered and protected, not discouraged and litigated,” Mr. Boehner said.

Drew Hammill, spokesman for Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, said, “This is an issue for the conferees.”

Jeffrey Addicott, director of the Center for Terrorism Law at St. Mary’s University School of Law in San Antonio, said no protections are in place for those who report crimes. He said these whistleblowers can be sued for violating constitutional rights or for racial discrimination.

“If the report does not have factual claims, you can be sued for violating someone’s civil rights,” Mr. Addicott said.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) praised the FBI for the arrests and said it “seems clear that a potentially deadly attack has been averted.”

“We continue to urge American Muslims to be vigilant in reporting any suspected criminal activities that could harm the safety and security of our nation.”

CAIR also said that the press and public officials should “refrain from linking this case to the faith of Islam” and asked mosques and other Muslim institutions “to report any incidents of anti-Muslim backlash.”

• S.A. Miller contributed to this report.

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