Beware the Holy War
It is in the final hour of his documentary that Curtis's argument that Bush officials have distorted the Al Qaeda threat takes its strongest shape. A critical element of the Bush Administration's approach to the threat is that there are "sleeper cells" in the United States, a "greens under the bed" fixation that Curtis characterizes as a chase for a "phantom enemy":
Thousands were detained, as all branches of the law and the military were told to look for terrorists.... And, bit by bit, the government found the network: a series of hidden cells in cities around the country from Buffalo to Portland.... The Americans called them "sleeper cells" and decided that they had just been waiting to strike. But in reality there is very little evidence that any of those arrested had anything at all to do with terrorist plots.
Curtis illustrates this with a story that owes something to the Keystone Kops and Inspector Clouseau. After 9/11 four Arab teenagers living in Detroit were arrested on suspicion of being an Al Qaeda sleeper cell, following a tip from a known con man. US officials subsequently found a videotape of a trip the teenagers had made to Disneyland and became convinced that it was a "casing tape" for a future terrorist attack. As Ron Hansen, a reporter for the Detroit News, explains,
I could never get past the fact that the tape just looked like a tourist tape. The Disneyland ride, for example, was a lengthy queue, people just making their way to the ride. The camera occasionally pans to look at the rocks on the wall, made to look like an Indiana Jones movie, and after several minutes the camera, it pans across and shows a trash can momentarily, and then continues off to look into the crowd. The [government] expert basically said that, by flashing on that trash can for a moment, the people who are part of this conspiracy to conduct these kinds of terrorist operations--they would understand what this is all about: how to locate a bomb in Disneyland in California.
The case became even more bizarre when officials also charged that the Detroit teenagers were planning to attack a US base in Turkey. The drawings, discovered in a diary, were later determined to be the demented doodles of a Yemeni who believed he was the minister of defense for the entire Middle East and who had committed suicide a year before any of the accused had arrived in Detroit. Eventually, the terrorism convictions of the teenagers were overturned.