"Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please." (Mark Twain)

Monday, November 22, 2004

Prisoner of War 

Understand this: We live in a time when an innocent man can be incarcerated for over a year, and no one responsible his imprisonment feels compelled to express any remorse. We live in a time when federal prosecutors set out to divine the thoughts and motives of a man whom they deem "suspicious," destroy his career and reputation, and pay no penalty for doing so. We live in a time when America has become a small, sad parody of itself - and it seems that no one really cares.

Sami al-Hussayen was a doctoral candidate, studying computer science at the University of Idaho in Moscow. Attorney General John Ashcroft (and please, do feel free to let the door hit your ass on the way out!) called him part of "a terrorist threat to Americans that is fanatical, and it is fierce." Idaho governor Dirk "Dirk" Kempthorne - last seen mugging with an animated potato named "Spuddy Buddy" (a name which I appropriated for my own young son, who is more qualified to be governor of Idaho than is Kempthorne) in a humiliating series of television commercials - pointed to al-Hussayen as proof that terrorists were afoot in the Gem State itself. And yet, despite the near-moral certitude displayed by such worthies in their assessment of al-Hussayen, the inconvenient fact remains that he was acquitted of all terrorism-related charges by a jury after a mere three hours of deliberation.

The details of al-Hussayen's story are instructive. Today's Seattle Times (a paper which I usually abhor, but they did a real public service with this story) sets forth those details in a wonderful article by Maureen O'Hagan:
At the eastern end of the golden Palouse that undulates for endless miles in the drive along Highway 270, Moscow appears on the horizon, a town marked by little more than a string of chain restaurants and gas stations and strip malls. It's enough to keep its 21,000 residents — about half of them University of Idaho students — sated.

Yet even in this tucked-away corner of the country, life was different after Sept. 11, 2001, when Americans were asked to do their part to stop terrorism. That fall, a local bank teller told the FBI that an Arab student had made a "suspicious" bank transaction.

Post-9/11 changes in surveillance laws helped turn suspicion into a massive investigation.

Although the bank account was not al-Hussayen's, prosecutors later explained he had some connection to it. In any case, he drew their attention.

Born in Saudi Arabia to a well-to-do family, he began studying in the United States in 1994. He got a master's degree from Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., and in 1999 came to Moscow to study for his doctorate in computer science. By the time of his arrest, he was nearly done.

Al-Hussayen and his wife, Maha, sent the oldest two of their three children to public school. And as president of the Muslim Student Association during the Sept. 11 attacks, he had been the public face of Islam in Moscow. Back then, he organized a blood drive for victims, marched in peace vigils, and wrote a letter on behalf of Muslim students condemning the terrorist attacks.

But some things about al-Hussayen made the FBI suspicious. Over five years, prosecutors say, he donated as much as $300,000 to Islamic charities — a figure defense lawyers disputed, saying it was wrong by about half, and that most of the total was a donation from a rich uncle that al-Hussayen passed along. The figure remains in dispute.

What is clear, however, is that al-Hussayen gave generously, like all faithful Muslims, who are required to donate substantially each year.

Al-Hussayen also was Webmaster for one of the charities, the Islamic Assembly of North America. The group, like many other Islamic charities, has been investigated for links to terrorist-financing networks, but no charges have been filed and the U.S. has not outlawed it.

In early 2002, the investigation of al-Hussayen began in earnest. The government's effort, it now appears, turned up a number of bogus clues leading to mistaken conclusions.

In this context, the phrases "bogus clues" and "mistaken conclusions" represent a stunning display of understatement:
For example:

• He had switched advisers for his dissertation midway through the school year. To the FBI, that meant he was trying to slow down his graduation, that his dissertation was "fictitious," and that his real purpose in coming to the United States was to help raise money for jihad, a holy war, using the Web. Al-Hussayen's explanation? His first adviser was battling cancer, and he switched so he could finish his dissertation on time.

• He studied computer-security systems. "They would always mention it with a sneer," said John Dickinson, al-Hussayen's faculty adviser. Al-Hussayen's explanation? He was working on a way to detect computer break-ins, not bring the nation's computer systems down.

• He moved his office from the computer-science building to one that years ago had housed the science department's nuclear reactor. To the FBI, that meant he might be seeking radioactive material to make a dirty bomb. The reality? The reactor was long defunct and the nuclear materials inaccessible, according to school officials.

Of course, none of this constitutes probable cause, and so prosecutors had to do some fancy footwork to get down to the dirty business of tapping al-Hussayen's phone and otherwise gather "evidence." This might have been fatal to the government's "case" back in the days when America still had a functioning Constitution, but in the present environment it was no problem at all:
To get around that Fourth Amendment requirement, they turned instead to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which was created in the 1970s so government could spy on spies. That court, which is conducted in secret, doesn't have the strict "probable cause" requirement. And under the Patriot Act, its jurisdiction was expanded, and it has increasingly been used in cases that don't involve spies.

In spring 2002, the court granted a government request to record all of al-Hussayen's phone calls and e-mail. All told, some 20,000 e-mails and 9,000 phone calls were captured over the course of about a year.

In addition to the wiretaps, as many as 20 local, state and federal law-enforcement officers began tailing al-Hussayen, according to his lawyer, recording his daily activities around campus and elsewhere.

Do you feel safe yet?

Please do go read the whole article. As I said, reporter Maureen O'Hagan did an extraordinary job, dispassionately describing exactly how and why this miscarriage of justice happened. When you're done reading, ask yourself: If it was ever the case that al Qaeda "hates us for our freedom," as our Dear Benighted Leader would have us believe, haven't we done quite enough to appease them already? How much more freedom will we have to cede before we are secure?

And - will our children ever forgive us?

 

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