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Losing Faith

Has the FBI Cried "Terrorist" Once Too Often?

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Last Thursday, the local branch of the Joint Terrorism Task Force made national news when they arrested two men and a woman from southeast Portland. In a press conference later that day, Attorney General John Ashcroft indicated that they were a "terrorist cell" plotting a jihad against the United States. He hailed it as "a defining day in America's war against terrorism."

But beyond the drum banging and hefty accusations, Ashcroft and the FBI were unwilling to provide details regarding their evidence. They indicated that the men were caught a year ago firing weapons in a private gravel pit in Washington (an act that perhaps makes them just as likely to be true-blooded American rednecks). Allegedly, they also unsuccessfully attempted to travel to Afghanistan. In a press conference, the FBI explained that connecting these dots drew a picture of a terrorist cell.

It would appear these arrests fall within a common pattern the FBI established after 9/11: A highly publicized arrest and then immediately shying away from sharing details or supporting evidence. It's like an episode of Law & Order without the second half-hour: Apprehending a suspect is only part of the story. The other part involves discovering and proving whether that person actually committed the crime. Without more public trials and without more evidence, the so-called fight against terrorism has become incomplete and increasingly suspect.

In September, for example, the Task Force arrested a Muslim man as he attempted to board a plane at PDX. He was held on charges that his luggage contained traces of explosives and for failure to file tax returns. But by the time he arrived for his first court appearance, the charges relating to explosives had disappeared. With little public fanfare, the Task Force admitted that further tests indicated that the luggage did not contain evidence of explosives.

Last week's indictments also made barbed insinuations about the suspects, implying there was evidence to back up those claims. For example, the indictment concludes that Jeffery Leon Battle, one of the men arrested, had joined the Army Reserve explicitly to receive military training, which he would then pass on to terrorist operatives in Afghanistan. Although sparse on details, press releases pointed out that Battle had been discharged from the Reserves.

But a closer study of the details surrounding Battle's involvement with the Army could easily spell out a different story: Battle did complete basic training in February 2000. After that, his involvement with the US Army faded. From basic training, most Army reservists sign up for active duty. Instead Battle asked to be excused, saying that he was going through a divorce at the time and trying to raise a 4-year-old son. A few months later, he simply failed to report for further training. The Army then dismissed him.

During this time, Battle also flitted in and out of jobs. Two years ago, he worked as an unarmed security guard for about four months before quitting. He was married for about five months, before requesting an immediate divorce. He also started his own private security company, but it appears as if the idea never went further than filing papers with the State of Oregon.

Lobbying for the release of several men held in Cincinnati, a Sixth Circuit federal judge wrote that "democracies die behind close doors." Ashcroft has publicly mocked this statement. But, if the FBI isn't more forthcoming with its accusations of terrorism, this sentiment may become the slogan for America's war on terrorism.

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