Battling terrorism isn't going to be pretty

October 03, 2001|By Gregory Kane

WHY ALL the skittishness? Why all the waffling in Congress about detaining terrorism suspects indefinitely? Democrats and Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee now insist the government can hold terrorism suspects no longer than seven days.

Chalk it up to nervousness about the erosion of civil liberties. Nearly 500 suspects are now detained. Only a few have been charged as material witnesses - who legally can be held indefinitely if the government proves they are a flight risk and possess important knowledge of a crime. But some lawyers believe that even the material witness statutes - which exist at both the federal and state levels - can be abused.

David Solomon, a Baltimore defense lawyer, has represented people who've been held as material witnesses.

"I've done it enough," Solomon said. "Every defense attorney who's practiced in federal court has. It's a very questionable process. I've defended many people where the sole evidence against them was the testimony of a cooperator or informant." Such witnesses, Solomon said, are "inherently unreliable," and as a bunch will lie, exaggerate and "sell their parents down the river."

By way of example, Solomon recalled the case in which he defended a 19-year-old murder suspect.

"The prosecution had two guys come in," Solomon said. "One had been in the cell next to [his client] on lock-up, and the other was on the same tier. Both said my client confessed to the shooting of a witness." The testimony of one witness, who got 12 years cut from his sentence, was, Solomon remembered, taken almost verbatim from the statement of probable cause.

So the prospect of abusing the material witness process is very real. Held indefinitely, a material witness might just start telling investigators what they want to hear. There's also a danger of suspects being held indefinitely without charges being filed. The question Americans - and, more specifically, our legislators - have to ask now is: Where lies the greater danger?

"It's a question of balancing the rights of the individual and the rights of society," A. Dwight Pettit, another Baltimore lawyer, said. "The government's argument is going to be one of national security. There may even be additional laws on the books that give the government more detaining powers."

Americans have had our military nerve center attacked and thousands killed. You have to admire the noble sentiments of legislators who don't want to hand over civil liberties to Attorney General John Ashcroft. Their hearts are in the right place, but they need to use their heads a little. What's the greater danger?

Two area congressmen have answered that the greater danger lies in enacting policies that chip away at freedom. Elijah E. Cummings, a Democrat from the 7th District, is against indefinite detention.

"I favor the seven days," Cummings said. "When we're in times of tragedy and emergency, we have to be careful how we legislate."

Benjamin L. Cardin, the 3rd District Democrat, concurred.

"We need to make sure everybody's treated fairly," Cardin said. Both were asked if there would be second-guessing if a suspect were released after seven days and then went out and committed an act of terrorism

"Freedom isn't free," Cummings said. "Our system of government is based on balancing things. We will never have a fail-safe system. We have to make sure that whatever we do during those seven days is the best we can do."

"If you have any credible evidence," Cardin added, "you can hold a person beyond seven days. In a free society, you just can't justify holding a person indefinitely."

Ashcroft is among those who feel letting the suspects run loose is the greater danger. Terrorist cells are probably still in the United States, plotting more terror. These terrorists read the newspapers and watch television newscasts. They now know that if they're detained for questioning, all they have to do is dummy up for seven days. Then they'll walk and carry out whatever terrorist act they were plotting, courtesy of Congress. They have no qualms about using the system we cherish to murder us. They've proved it.

We're all for terrorism being defeated, mind you. But we don't want to get our hair mussed. We want the battle against terrorism to be pretty. Here's some sobering news for all of us:

Pretty ended Sept. 11.

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