Return to:

A Project of the Institute for America's Future
Return to: Opinions

Homeland Security's Casualties

Russ Baker

August 24, 2005

Investigative reporter and essayist Russ Baker is a longtime contributor to He is the founder of the Real News Project, a new organization dedicated to revitalizing investigative journalism. He can be reached at Research assistance for this piece was provided by Stefanie von Brochowski. 

Good news! Efforts to safeguard Americans are working perfectly—if you read last week’s new report from the Justice Department’s inspector general. The report  says the Justice Department received no complaints in the first six months of this year related to misconduct by department employees carrying out the USA Patriot Act—a key component of the campaign to prevent domestic acts of terror.

If you take that statement about the lack of complaints out of context—and many Americans probably will, thanks to the Bush administration's prowess at spinning and news-managing—you might conclude that the homeland security operation has been a resounding success.

But you get a very different impression if you piece together scattered reports from a variety of sources about the impact of the Bush administration’s domestic “War on Terror.” In early August alone, a number of disturbing articles suggested that measures designed to protect Americans are seriously undermining the most basic civil rights of both citizens and guests in this country—in an ostensibly still-free society. 

Here’s a sampling of the bad news:

  • On August 7, The New York Times reported the case of a longtime naturalized American citizen—a New York area-translator, an apparently peaceable fellow, working on his doctorate, with no personal involvement in or sympathies with terror activity. He has now been convicted of providing material aid to terrorism and conspiring to deceive the government. His crime: Translating material into and out of Arabic for  defense attorney Lynne Stewart and her client, the jailed Sheikh Abdul Rahman. A jury found Stewart guilty of passing along violent messages from the cleric, but the translator claims that in his own actions he was simply following her instructions. It’s far from clear that he understood that anything he did could be seen as aiding terrorism or that this was his intention—yet he now faces a possible 20 years in prison.
  • The grim spectre of American troops in American streets is not just a nightmare scenario any longer. On August 8, The Washington Post reported on Pentagon plans to have normal military troops intervene domestically in various crisis scenarios, despite the fact that the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 severely restricts the use of troops in domestic law enforcement. The long-range concern here is that introducing active-duty troops onto American streets could lead to military involvement in politics and eventually, under the cloak of some future crisis, to military government. In the meantime, worries arise about the transferability of skills that troops need in war zones where civil liberties and other niceties play little or no role, to political demonstrations on the streets of, say, Washington, D.C., or Cleveland.  The article contains various reassurances that there’s no cause for alarm. But the Post got this story from “officers who drafted the plans.” Assuming the officers spoke to the reporter with the permission of their superiors, that means the military is floating the idea to see whether it actually bothers anyone.   Do the words “Kent State” mean nothing to today’s Pentagon planners?
  • People may be incarcerated right here in the United States in conditions as harsh as those that exist or existed in places like Abu Ghraib, Bagram and Guantanamo. On August 9, we learned about an Illinois student from Qatar being held as an enemy combatant—in a Navy brig in Charleston, S.C. His lawyer claims that he is held in isolation, nearly round the clock, in a dark 6-by-9-foot cell; deliberately exposed to extreme cold; denied basic necessities like a toothbrush, toilet paper, adequate bedding and medical and psychological care; and denied any contact with his family. He further claims to be denied access to any books, newspapers, radio, television or religious material except for the Koran (which he says was placed on the floor, with other items heaped atop it), and says that threats have been made against his family.
  • The U.S. government is seizing foreigners who are simply changing planes at U.S. airports, detaining them without charges, depriving them of access to a lawyer or the courts and even denying basic necessities like food. On August 10, I read how one naturalized Canadian citizen is suing the U.S. government over the practice known as ''extraordinary rendition.'' He alleges  that he was grabbed at JFK Airport, held in solitary confinement in a Brooklyn detention center and then shipped off to his native Syria to be interrogated under torture because officials suspected that he was a member of Al Qaeda. Since then, Syrian and Canadian officials have said that the man had no terrorist connections. U.S. officials maintain otherwise. According to The New York Times , they are seeking dismissal of his lawsuit, in part through the rare assertion of a "state secrets" privilege.

One wonders, of course, if these are just isolated examples, an unavoidable byproduct of a system that, overall, is protecting our lives. But is it?

The government steadfastly refuses to reveal how many people have been arrested in this country on suspicion of terror-related activity, though legal and human right experts say the numbers may be as high as 5,000.  Now, it’s understandable that in the climate following 9/11, errors would be made. Still, one might reasonably expect a certain percentage of those incarcerations to be justified in the end. Yet, according to a statistical analysis released early this year by the NYU Center on Law and Security, based on the 120 terrorism-related cases it could identify, only two cases resulted in convictions for actual or planned terrorist acts. One involved shoe bomber Richard Reid, who was only apprehended (by fellow passengers) when he unsuccessfully tried to blow up a plane. The other involved Iyman Faris, a Kashmir-born Ohio truck driver sentenced to 20 years in prison for planning to sabotage Brooklyn Bridge trains—who has a history of mental illness, attempted suicide and spent some time in a mental hospital in the late '90s. Not your typical Al Qaeda operative.

In addition, the authorities have required more than 80,000 foreign men, from predominantly Arab or Muslim countries, to register, be fingerprinted and photographed; called in around 8,000 for FBI interviews; and prioritized more than 6,000 for deportation, says David Cole, professor at Georgetown University Law Center and expert on civil liberties and national security. As of now, he says, not a single one of those has been charged with anything terror-related.

The reason the number actually arrested is a mere guess is that there are no records—indeed, no public scrutiny at all. Even the families and the detainees themselves are sometimes denied access to court documents. “The simple fact is: nobody knows—and I’m not sure we’ll ever know the number of people that have gone through U.S. custody,” says Jumana Musa, Advocacy Director of Domestic Human Rights and International Justice, at Amnesty International USA.

But why don’t we know? “The government was announcing the number of people that they had taken into custody until they got to around 1,200,” says Musa. “And people started asking the question ‘well, how many of those people were charged with September 11?’, and the answer was zero. So they stopped giving numbers in custody.”

If this still sounds too remote to trouble you, consider this: You don’t have to be Muslim or even appear to fit any profile to come close to personal peril. I have twice been pulled into an interrogation room after coming off foreign flights. The first time, the officers involved released me soon after, but declined to explain why I had been flagged. The second time, one confessed that my name was ‘similar’ to that of someone on a watch list (“Sheikh Ras al-Bakr”?)—this despite a unique passport number and a history of decidedly nonjihadist overseas travel, albeit as a journalist who has found many occasions to criticize the current administration.

Can I—can any of us—learn more about what is going on?  No, we can’t. Because no administration in history has come close to the Bush White House in its zeal to block the routine release of information, and to stamp “classified” on pieces of paper—millions upon millions. It’s worth noting that this policy went into effect long before 9/11—indeed, within days of Bush taking office in early 2001.

Since then, of course, the claimed justification for opaqueness has grown. And so have the dangers to democracy.



Sign up for our free daily dispatch.
Privacy Policy

© 2005 ( A Project of The Institute for America's Future ) | Privacy Policy | Contact Us | About Us |