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FBI must stop jumping to conclusions

For all the madness it will spare you, you may as well wish upon a star as a method of understanding what the state of federal governance holds for America’s future.

Searching for patterns – let alone some grand, unifying theme – in the recent history of the FBI and federal prosecution can drive one absolutely loopy. It’s a strong endorsement of the country’s Judeo-Christian ethic that many laymen – unbelievers among them – tend to think of things in terms of the Holy Trinity, looking for signs in triplet occurrences, plucking unrelated events out of the social cosmos in threes. It seems at least as valid as “chaos theory,” anyway, considering all the money that’s gone into that area of research.

The 1990s presented its own weird pattern of FBI behavior in an era when the Bureau was indirectly criticized for becoming a political tool of assorted White House administrations (was there a time when it has been anything else?). The FBI’s 1992 incursion into white separatist Randy Weaver’s Ruby Ridge compound and the 1993 standoff with the Branch-Davidian cult in Waco and the massacres incurred in both were rounded out nicely in the public eye when federal agents seized 6-year-old Cuban refugee/covert operative Elian Gonzalez in 2000 and forcibly deported him (or, depending on your point of view, “returned him to his father”).

Of course, the FBI is a busy place with an astronomical annual workload. But among anti-government enthusiasts, these specific events formed the New World Order Trifecta, signaling the imminent invasion of the state into people’s private lives. Gun control, soybean diets and forced abortions for everyone.

A more likely reading – though no less disconcerting – is that the pattern was one of bad decision making. In each instance, the government had a mandate to step in and quell problems – but there was a right way and a wrong way of doing it, and the feds simply chose the latter every time.

The current era of curious federal behavior seems quite a bit more complex, although that may be a matter of lacking historical reflection, which can only come with time.

Perhaps the crown jewels of the Bush administration’s War on Terror are the assorted Muslims being held and tried in U.S. courts, ostensibly tangible evidence that the country’s foes can be brought to justice in the civilized world. But for what was esteemed to be such a no-brainer in America’s national deluge of outrage and fear, many of the trials have laid long, strange paths in the pursuit of righteousness and called into doubt the government’s commitment to the very principles it claims to be defending.

Take, for instance, the so-called “dirty bomb plotter,” Jose Padilla – a U.S. citizen/idiot arrested after meeting with al Qaida operatives, who was found to have neither the instruments to construct a radioactive device nor any actual “plot,” but instead a collection of dangerous fuzzy ideas and a long rap sheet of thuggery. Padilla has been held in a South Carolina naval brig since May 2002. It was a year and 10 months after his arrest before he was allowed to meet with a lawyer, and a year and a half after that before the feds charged him with a crime. As a conspiracy and attempted murder case, this would’ve been a slam-dunk; instead, former Attorney General John Ashcroft tried to make Padilla something he wasn’t, and now everyone from the ACLU to the John Birch Society has a Fifth Amendment martyr to heft about on their shoulders in the sorry form of an ex-Chicago gangbanger.

Then there is the trial of Sept. 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, in which the prosecution has repeatedly shot itself in the foot in a dozen ways. This includes revelations that the government repeatedly ignored signs of terrorist activity, which directly led to the Sept. 11 attacks, and also defying instructions from the judge regarding the coaching of witnesses. Thank heaven Moussaoui himself took the stand Monday – how screwed up is it that the prosecution had to rely on the defendant to seal his own fate, doing more to unravel the work of his defense team – of his own volition, mind you – in a few hours than the prosecution was able to do in more than a year?

Also, how embarrassing for the FBI is the prosecutor’s primary argument – that the attacks could’ve been prevented had Moussaoui only told them what he knew? Essentially, this advertises the Bureau as an agile, competent agency that can ably protect U.S. citizens, provided that suspects tell them everything they happen to know about everything, presumably leading agents on with gumdrops and limericks until they figure out what questions they should be asking.

Finally, consider Sami Al-Arian, the former USF professor who was brought low on charges of providing material support to Palestinian terrorists – and whose arrest was trumpeted ad nauseum as vindication for the Patriot Act. Jailed in 2003, just a few short years after working so hard to help the Bush-Cheney ticket with the Arab vote in 2000, Al-Arian whiled away several years in prison himself, waiting for the feds to present the evidence they had amassed over at least seven years of investigation. When his trial finally began in June 2005, the prosecution brought forth more than 80 witnesses of every stripe, and the defense exerted only a cursory cross-examination of most of them.

Then, in November, a remarkable thing happened: Immediately after the prosecution rested, the defense rested as well. They offered no counter-narrative, no alternative manifesto, no great appeal to the senses; it wasn’t necessary. On Dec. 6, after 13 days of deliberation, Al-Arian’s jury acquitted him on eight of the 17 charges leveled against him and deadlocked on the remaining nine.

Is a further indictment of the quality of the government’s case against Al-Arian necessary? I should think not.

And still, Al-Arian sits in jail, more than three months after his acquittal, as the government tries to decide how, when and (presumably) if it will now deport him on the basis of false information in his long-ago application for U.S. citizenship. This wasn’t important enough to deport him a decade ago, but when all else – meaning a gazillion-dollar legal siege – fails, it’s nice to have something to fall back on.

So what to think, then, of this emerging pattern, wherein the government builds massive cases against defendants, often holding them incommunicado and without constitutional protection, but is then unable to prosecute successfully because it either insists on constructing an overblown mythology around a suspect (Padilla), refuses to obey its own laws (Moussaoui) or, in the case of Al-Arian, there was no real case to begin with?

What has thus far relegated consideration of this plight to the margins of the ACLU, etc., is the clearly “other” nature of the defendants – Muslims in an age of Islamic extremism, accused terrorists in an age of terror. This is not a torch the average patriot wants to bear. Setting aside the egregiousness of Al-Arian’s continued detainment, I’ll say that I don’t especially doubt Padilla’s guilt in relation to the more grounded charges leveled against him, and Moussaoui, once allowed to speak, now boasts of his own villainy. The issue, however, is not the crimes for which they are charged, but the standards to which Americans will hold themselves and the value placed upon the applicability of constitutional protections to everyone who stands accused.

What the United States is seeing now is a system of behavior in which the government is not simply overzealous, but engaged in an effort to uproot fundamental expectations of the rule of law in this country. How much more clearly do the nation’s citizens want the pattern to emerge?

Ryan McGeeney is a senior majoring in political science.