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Why We're Losing the War on Terror | The Nation

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Why We're Losing the War on Terror

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Overall, the government's success rate in cases alleging terrorist charges since 9/11 is only 29 percent, compared with a 92 percent conviction rate for felonies. This is an astounding statistic, because presumably federal juries are not predisposed to sympathize with Arab or Muslim defendants accused of terrorism. But when one prosecutes prematurely, failure is often the result.

This article is adapted from David Cole and Jules Lobel's new book, Less Safe, Less Free: Why America Is Losing the War on Terror (New Press).

About the Author

Jules Lobel
Jules Lobel is vice president of the Center for Constitutional Rights.
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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The government's "preventive" immigration initiatives have come up even more empty-handed. After 9/11 the Bush Administration called in 80,000 foreign nationals for fingerprinting, photographing and "special registration" simply because they came from predominantly Arab or Muslim countries; sought out another 8,000 young men from the same countries for FBI interviews; and placed more than 5,000 foreign nationals here in preventive detention. Yet as of September 2007, not one of these people stands convicted of a terrorist crime. The government's record, in what is surely the largest campaign of ethnic profiling since the Japanese internment of World War II, is 0 for 93,000.

These statistics offer solid evidence to support the overwhelming consensus that Foreign Policy found when it polled more than 100 foreign policy experts--evenly dispersed along the political spectrum--and found that 91 percent felt that the world is becoming more dangerous for the United States, and that 84 percent said we are not winning the "war on terror."

It is certainly possible that some of these preventive measures deterred would-be terrorists from attacking us or helped to uncover and foil terrorist plots before they could come to fruition. But if real plots had been foiled and real terrorists identified, one would expect some criminal convictions to follow. When FBI agents successfully foiled a plot by Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman (popularly known as "the blind sheik") and others to bomb bridges and tunnels around Manhattan in the 1990s, it also convicted the plotters and sent them to prison for life.

In October 2005 Bush claimed that the United States and its allies had foiled ten terrorist plots. But he couldn't point to a single convicted terrorist. Consider just one of Bush's ten "success" stories, the one about which he provided the most details: an alleged Al Qaeda plot to fly an airplane into the Library Tower, a skyscraper in Los Angeles. The perpetrators, described only as Southeast Asians, were said to have been captured in early 2002 in Asia. As far as we know, however, no one has ever been charged or tried for this alleged terror plot. Intelligence officials told the Washington Post that there was "deep disagreement within the intelligence community about...whether it was ever much more than talk." A senior FBI official said, "To take that and make it into a disrupted plot is just ludicrous." American officials claim to have learned about some of the plot's details by interrogating captured Al Qaeda leader Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, but he was captured in 2003, long after the perpetrators had been arrested. As the Los Angeles Times put it, "By the time anybody knew about it, the threat--if there had been one--had passed, federal counter-terrorism officials said." These facts--all omitted in Bush's retelling--suggest that such claims of success need to be viewed skeptically.

if the Bush strategy were merely ineffectual, that would be bad enough. But it's worse than that; the President's policy has actually made us significantly less secure. While the Administration has concentrated on swaggeringly aggressive coercive initiatives of dubious effect, it has neglected less dramatic but more effective preventive initiatives. In December 2005 the bipartisan 9/11 Commission gave the Administration failing or near-failing grades on many of the most basic domestic security measures, including assessing critical infrastructure vulnerabilities, securing weapons of mass destruction, screening airline passengers and cargo, sharing information between law enforcement and intelligence agencies, insuring that first responders have adequate communications and supporting secular education in Muslim countries. We spend more in a day in Iraq than we do annually on some of the most important defensive initiatives here at home.

The preventive paradigm has also made it more difficult to bring terrorists to justice, just as FBI Director Mueller warned on September 12. When the Administration chooses to disappear suspects into secret prisons and use waterboarding to encourage them to talk, it forfeits any possibility of bringing the suspects to justice for their alleged crimes, because evidence obtained coercively at a "black site" would never be admissible in a fair and legitimate trial. That's the real reason no one has yet been brought to trial at Guantánamo. There is debate about whether torture ever results in reliable intelligence--but there can be no debate that it radically curtails the government's ability to bring a terrorist to justice.

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