3/13/2005

The legal war on terror at home

Karen Greenberg has an article on TomDispatch.com about the almost complete lack of success on the part of the Justice Department in getting terrorism-related convictions.
Greenberg, who runs NYU's Center on Law and Security and is co-author of a monumental volume, The Torture Papers: The Road to Abu Ghraib, offers a run-down on the Bush administration's over-hyped, less-than-striking legal battle with terrorism in our courts and suggests that that sense of impunity and contempt has worked its way deep into the Department of Justice's efforts to deal with terrorism here...It's not surprising then that what Greenberg calls "a pale version" of the coercive methods of Guantánamo has already found its way into the Justice Department's process of plea bargaining with various small-fry suspects it has managed to pick up in the US. Anyone who believes that Americans can use Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib methods abroad, safe from all versions of them at home, is living in his or her own bubble. She concludes: Overall, despite all the hype, the Department of Justice's record in terrorism cases is unimpressive indeed and even that record now faces a new hurdle -- if information, however paltry, has been gained from suspects by illegal coercion or, in the case, of suspects held abroad, through torture, it may prove inadmissible in future court cases against other suspects. This will be yet another setback in the legal confrontation with terrorism. Perhaps this paltry and flawed record can be explained by the administration's well known lack of belief in the importance of law enforcement in the war on terror. As Bush suggested in his last State of the Union Address, and other top officials have emphasized elsewhere, the war on terror is not supposed to be about law enforcement at all but about the use of force, about taking the fight to the terrorists by whatever means are necessary outside the United States. Another reasonable conclusion might be that, for all the color-coded alerts we've lived through, there just aren't that many terrorists among us -- at least not Al Qaeda related ones. Terrorists do indeed exist who would like to do great damage to the United States, but convictions like those in the President's cases are generally less than helpful in the defense against them. If anything, they lull Americans into a false sense of security, into a sense that important terrorists are indeed being convicted and jailed for crimes or plans of significance. In the meantime, most of these cases represent, at best, sloppy prosecutions; at worst, fraudulent ones. In all of them, there is a powerful sense of apparent desperation and hype, of prosecutors flailing about as if there were nothing more important than simply declaring, "Yes, we have found sleeper cells; yes, there is danger in our midst; yes, we are winning this war in the homeland." The fact is that the political expediency of the war on terror has undermined the strategy of an effective pursuit of terrorists. The rush to prosecution, the pressure to get convictions, even the holding of detainees without charging them, speaks more to politics than to justice, more to appearances than substance. It is time for the courts to assert their professionalism, to prosecute alleged terrorists carefully, without a rush to judgment, and in so doing to help the legal war on terror take its rightful place in the annals of American jurisprudence.

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