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Knock on Wood | The Nation

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Knock on Wood

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Underlying George W. Bush's remarkable "torture works" speech on September 6 were two trademark themes: The American people are still vulnerable to a terrorist attack, and the Administration has succeeded in protecting us.

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David Cole
David Cole
David Cole (@DavidColeGtown), The Nation's legal affairs correspondent, is the author, most recently, of The Torture...

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In ruling that police may not search cellphones without a warrant, the Court brought the Fourth Amendment into the twenty-first century.

That was when the Bureau of Investigation—the forerunner of today’s FBI—first opened a file on the magazine.

The President has it half right--we are still vulnerable to a terrorist attack. In fact, we may be more vulnerable than ever. But that is in large part because of--not in spite of--the Administration's so-called "war on terror." By employing illegitimate means--from renditions to disappearances to torture to a war against a country that did not attack or threaten us--in the name of protecting us from terrorist attacks, the Administration has played into Al Qaeda's hands. It has given the enemy the best recruiting propaganda it could ever have hoped for, created a state-of-the-art terrorist training camp in the streets of Iraq and fostered the growth of a loose-knit global band of fanatic criminals who are willing to do unspeakable violence to teach the United States a lesson.

But there hasn't been a terrorist attack on US soil since 9/11. Surely the Administration deserves credit for that? When former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge noted this absence of terrorist attacks at a press conference upon stepping down from his post, he knocked on wood. It was a fitting gesture, because the Administration is hard-pressed to point to its initiatives as a cause for that fortuitous fact.

More than 5,000 foreign nationals within the United States were locked up in anti-terrorism initiatives in the first two years after 9/11--yet as I have noted before, not a single one has been convicted of a terrorist crime. The Special Registration program also came up short. It required 80,000 immigrants from countries with predominantly Arab and Muslim populations to come into immigration offices for interviews, fingerprinting and photographing. Yet it failed to identify and convict a single terrorist.

The Administration boasts of indicting more than 400 people in terror-related cases since 9/11, and of obtaining more than 200 convictions. But the vast majority of these cases feature no charges of terrorism at all--only routine charges of credit card fraud or false statements on a federal form. Virtually all of those who actually faced a "terrorism" charge are accused not of any terrorist act, nor even of conspiracy to engage in terrorism, but of "material support" for a group labeled as terrorist, under a law so overbroad that it requires no proof of intent to support terrorist activity. The Justice Department recently invoked this law to arrest a Staten Island man for selling satellite broadcasts from Al Manar, a television station owned by Lebanon's Hezbollah.

The President claimed in his speech that the CIA's harsh interrogations of disappeared Al Qaeda suspects have foiled terrorist attacks and saved American lives, but he gave no details that could confirm those claims. And the fact remains that the President has not pointed to any terrorist convictions obtained as a result of such "intelligence."

Zacarias Moussaoui and shoe bomber Richard Reid remain the two most dangerous terrorists brought to justice in the United States since 9/11, and neither man's conviction can be attributed to post-9/11 initiatives--Moussaoui was arrested before 9/11, and Reid was identified by a British airline attendant.

Meanwhile, the Justice Department is left focusing its efforts on such "terror suspects" as a ragtag group in Florida arrested in June for allegedly plotting to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago. None of the defendants had ever been to Chicago, and the FBI's deputy director admitted that the group was "more aspirational than operational." The principal items they purchased toward achieving their alleged goal were combat boots.

In the President's eyes, the threat of terrorism has justified warrantless spying on Americans, detention without charges of thousands around the world and at home, unprecedented intrusions on privacy, close monitoring of Quakers and other antiwar dissenters, and the torture of suspects at Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib and elsewhere--all in the name of making us safe. But fulfilling Ben Franklin's warning, it appears we have sacrificed liberty for security, and obtained neither.

Recent polls suggest that Americans are beginning to get it. In August the Associated Press reported that 43 percent were embarrassed by the US image abroad, and that 60 percent thought the war in Iraq made a terrorist attack within the United States more likely. A Quinnipiac University poll found that more than half of Americans disapprove of how the President has pursued the "war on terror," both overseas and at home, suggesting that the Republicans are losing their trump card.

The President still doesn't get it. He has brought the disappeared into the open in order to bring them to justice, while retaining the option to disappear and torture again. But convicting those we have so harshly abused will be next to impossible. And we will not achieve justice until we learn that we must pursue the goal of protecting ourselves from terrorism without sacrificing fundamental commitments to equal respect and dignity for all.

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