Justice twisted in terror fight

January 10, 2003|By Dennis Bernstein

SAN FRANCISCO - Our homeland security net finally has snared a big fish.

It caught someone who has access to our nation's most secret secrets, plotted to sell dozens of advanced U.S. missiles to Iran, was convicted of lying to Congress, obstructed federal investigations and destroyed thousands of official documents to cover his tracks.

This kind of prize, the Bush administration might tell you, is what makes worthwhile all the reductions of rights, invasions of privacy and losses of liberty it has thrust upon us.

But the administration is not telling you that. Instead of detaining this enemy combatant without access to lawyers in an undisclosed location or hauling him before a secret military tribunal, the Bush administration has hired him to run one of its most sensitive programs.

Him, of course, is retired Adm. John Poindexter, who was recently appointed to head the Pentagon Information Awareness Office (IAO), a part of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). In essence, Mr. Poindexter was given an office in the Pentagon, super-secret clearance and a $200 million-plus budget to track his neighbors and anyone else he deems to be a terrorist threat.

To truly grasp the depth of the double standard used by the Bush administration in its war on terror, consider the case of Islamic cleric Mohammad Asi. Like Poindexter, Mr. Asi is a Maryland resident, a U.S. citizen and a military veteran.

Unlike Mr. Poindexter, Mr. Asi, of Silver Spring, is a respected local religious leader who has been bugged, tapped and monitored from about six different directions without a shred of evidence pointing to criminal or terrorist-related activities.

To date, according to U.S. officials, his only crime is that he has close ties to Iranian mullahs (whoops, again like Mr. Poindexter) and he is a vociferous critic of U.S. Middle East policy.

In recent weeks, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the FBI have increased their surveillance and arrests of "suspicious" Middle Easterners and Muslims. In most cases, those arrested had no criminal background and were possibly guilty of very minor immigration infractions. Most were arrested while voluntarily registering to meet new INS rules.

"The war on terrorism has become a war of terror against anyone who looks like they are from the Middle East," said Michael Ratner, president of the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights. "It's reminiscent of the days of Japanese internment" in this country during World War II.

Does the administration really think that any terrorist planning terrible acts will be registering at a local INS office? Did Mr. Poindexter voluntarily turn himself in after selling weapons to Iran and lying to Congress?

"This is unbelievable," said a former high-level federal law enforcement official, who asked not to be identified. "They have agents running around the country wasting time and precious resources arresting anyone who overstays their visa for a day. But this Iran-contra culprit, who sold weapons to an enemy state, is given access to the confidential records of millions of Americans."

This is not just hyperbole.

Under his controversial new vision of "Total Information Awareness," Mr. Poindexter will be able to, allowed to, required to track every move his law-abiding Maryland neighbor, Mr. Asi, makes: where he banks, what he buys, where he travels, whom he calls or e-mails and what books he takes out of the library.

Then, based on Mr. Poindexter's electronic vacuum, Mr. Asi could be further tracked, interrogated and sucked into a criminal justice system that considers all Muslims to be enemy combatants and not permitted the same civil rights used by Mr. Poindexter. He managed to get his five felony convictions for obstruction of Congress and six-month sentence overturned on a technicality in 1991.

Many people, including the former law enforcement official, believe the current policy is not only racist but makes us less safe and secure.

"I am very concerned," he said, "that by putting all our eggs in the Middle Eastern basket, we give free rein to the Tim McVeigh types in this world to blow up anything they want. I think there are more than a few white guys out there that are not fans of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution."

Our system has always prided itself on applying a single standard to all. We have seen the horrible results - slavery, internment camps, Indian reservations - when we apply different standards to different people. President Bush's double standards will diminish us in the very same ways.

Dennis Bernstein, an investigative reporter, is executive producer of a daily investigative news magazine on public radio in California and Texas and a contributing editor for Pacific News Service.

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