Entries Tagged "entrapment"

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NSA Surveillance and Mission Creep

Last month, I wrote about the potential for mass surveillance mission creep: the tendency for the vast NSA surveillance apparatus to be used for other, lesser, crimes. My essay was theoretical, but it turns out to be already happening.

Other agencies are already asking to use the NSA data:

Agencies working to curb drug trafficking, cyberattacks, money laundering, counterfeiting and even copyright infringement complain that their attempts to exploit the security agency’s vast resources have often been turned down because their own investigations are not considered a high enough priority, current and former government officials say.

The Drug Enforcement Agency is already using this data, and lying about it:

A secretive U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration unit is funneling information from intelligence intercepts, wiretaps, informants and a massive database of telephone records to authorities across the nation to help them launch criminal investigations of Americans.

Although these cases rarely involve national security issues, documents reviewed by Reuters show that law enforcement agents have been directed to conceal how such investigations truly begin — not only from defense lawyers but also sometimes from prosecutors and judges.

The undated documents show that federal agents are trained to “recreate” the investigative trail to effectively cover up where the information originated, a practice that some experts say violates a defendant’s Constitutional right to a fair trial. If defendants don’t know how an investigation began, they cannot know to ask to review potential sources of exculpatory evidence — information that could reveal entrapment, mistakes or biased witnesses.

I find that “some experts say” bit funny. I suppose it’s Reuters’ way of pretending there’s balance.

This is really bad. The surveillance state is closer than most of us think.

Posted on August 6, 2013 at 6:16 AMView Comments

Book Review: Against Security

Against Security: How We Go Wrong at Airports, Subways, and Other Sites of Ambiguous Danger, by Harvey Molotch, Princeton University Press, 278 pages, $35.

Security is both a feeling and a reality, and the two are different things. People can feel secure when they’re actually not, and they can be secure even when they believe otherwise.

This discord explains much of what passes for our national discourse on security policy. Security measures often are nothing more than security theater, making people feel safer without actually increasing their protection.

A lot of psychological research has tried to make sense out of security, fear, risk, and safety. But however fascinating the academic literature is, it often misses the broader social dynamics. New York University’s Harvey Molotch helpfully brings a sociologist’s perspective to the subject in his new book Against Security.

Molotch delves deeply into a few examples and uses them to derive general principles. He starts Against Security with a mundane topic: the security of public restrooms. It’s a setting he knows better than most, having authored Toilet: The Public Restroom and the Politics of Sharing (New York University Press) in 2010. It turns out the toilet is not a bad place to begin a discussion of the sociology of security.

People fear various things in public restrooms: crime, disease, embarrassment. Different cultures either ignore those fears or address them in culture-specific ways. Many public lavatories, for example, have no-touch flushing mechanisms, no-touch sinks, no-touch towel dispensers, and even no-touch doors, while some Japanese commodes play prerecorded sounds of water running, to better disguise the embarrassing tinkle.

Restrooms have also been places where, historically and in some locations, people could do drugs or engage in gay sex. Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) was arrested in 2007 for soliciting sex in the bathroom at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, suggesting that such behavior is not a thing of the past. To combat these risks, the managers of some bathrooms—men’s rooms in American bus stations, in particular—have taken to removing the doors from the toilet stalls, forcing everyone to defecate in public to ensure that no one does anything untoward (or unsafe) behind closed doors.

Subsequent chapters discuss security in subways, at airports, and on airplanes; at Ground Zero in lower Manhattan; and after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Each of these chapters is an interesting sociological discussion of both the feeling and reality of security, and all of them make for fascinating reading. Molotch has clearly done his homework, conducting interviews on the ground, asking questions designed to elicit surprising information.

Molotch demonstrates how complex and interdependent the factors that comprise security are. Sometimes we implement security measures against one threat, only to magnify another. He points out that more people have died in car crashes since 9/11 because they were afraid to fly—or because they didn’t want to deal with airport security—than died during the terrorist attacks. Or to take a more prosaic example, special “high-entry” subway turn­stiles make it much harder for people to sneak in for a free ride but also make platform evacuations much slower in the case of an emergency.

The common thread in Against Security is that effective security comes less from the top down and more from the bottom up. Molotch’s subtitle telegraphs this conclusion: “How We Go Wrong at Airports, Subways, and Other Sites of Ambiguous Danger.” It’s the word ambiguous that’s important here. When we don’t know what sort of threats we want to defend against, it makes sense to give the people closest to whatever is happening the authority and the flexibility to do what is necessary. In many of Molotch’s anecdotes and examples, the authority figure—a subway train driver, a policeman—has to break existing rules to provide the security needed in a particular situation. Many security failures are exacerbated by a reflexive adherence to regulations.

Molotch is absolutely right to home in on this kind of individual initiative and resilience as a critical source of true security. Current U.S. security policy is overly focused on specific threats. We defend individual buildings and monuments. We defend airplanes against certain terrorist tactics: shoe bombs, liquid bombs, underwear bombs. These measures have limited value because the number of potential terrorist tactics and targets is much greater than the ones we have recently observed. Does it really make sense to spend a gazillion dollars just to force terrorists to switch tactics? Or drive to a different target? In the face of modern society’s ambiguous dangers, it is flexibility that makes security effective.

We get much more bang for our security dollar by not trying to guess what terrorists are going to do next. Investigation, intelligence, and emergency response are where we should be spending our money. That doesn’t mean mass surveillance of everyone or the entrapment of incompetent terrorist wannabes; it means tracking down leads—the sort of thing that caught the 2006 U.K. liquid bombers. They chose their tactic specifically to evade established airport security at the time, but they were arrested in their London apartments well before they got to the airport on the strength of other kinds of intelligence.

In his review of Against Security in Times Higher Education, aviation security expert Omar Malik takes issue with the book’s seeming trivialization of the airplane threat and Molotch’s failure to discuss terrorist tactics. “Nor does he touch on the multitude of objects and materials that can be turned into weapons,” Malik laments. But this is precisely the point. Our fears of terrorism are wildly out of proportion to the actual threat, and an analysis of various movie-plot threats does nothing to make us safer.

In addition to urging people to be more reasonable about potential threats, Molotch makes a strong case for optimism and kindness. Treating every air traveler as a potential terrorist and every Hurricane Katrina refugee as a potential looter is dehumanizing. Molotch argues that we do better as a society when we trust and respect people more. Yes, the occasional bad thing will happen, but 1) it happens less often, and is less damaging, than you probably think, and 2) individuals naturally organize to defend each other. This is what happened during the evacuation of the Twin Towers and in the aftermath of Katrina before official security took over. Those in charge often do a worse job than the common people on the ground.

While that message will please skeptics of authority, Molotch sees a role for government as well. In fact, many of his lessons are primarily aimed at government agencies, to help them design and implement more effective security systems. His final chapter is invaluable on that score, discussing how we should focus on nurturing the good in most people—by giving them the ability and freedom to self-organize in the event of a security disaster, for example—rather than focusing solely on the evil of the very few. It is a hopeful yet realistic message for an irrationally anxious time. Whether those government agencies will listen is another question entirely.

This review was originally published at reason.com.

Posted on December 14, 2012 at 12:24 PMView Comments

HBGary and the Future of the IT Security Industry

This is a really good piece by Paul Roberts on Anonymous vs. HBGary: not the tactics or the politics, but what HBGary demonstrates about the IT security industry.

But I think the real lesson of the hack – and of the revelations that followed it – is that the IT security industry, having finally gotten the attention of law makers, Pentagon generals and public policy establishment wonks in the Beltway, is now in mortal danger of losing its soul. We’ve convinced the world that the threat is real – omnipresent and omnipotent. But in our desire to combat it, we are becoming indistinguishable from the folks with the black hats.

[…]

…While “scare ’em and snare ’em” may be business as usual in the IT security industry, other HBGary Federal skunk works projects clearly crossed a line: a proposal for a major U.S. bank, allegedly Bank of America, to launch offensive cyber attacks on the servers that host the whistle blower site Wikileaks. HBGary was part of a triumvirate of firms that also included Palantir Inc and Berico Technologies, that was working with the law firm of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to develop plans to target progressive groups, labor unions and other left-leaning non profits who the Chamber opposed with a campaign of false information and entrapment. Other leaked e-mail messages reveal work with General Dynamics and a host of other firms to develop custom, stealth malware and collaborations with other firms selling offensive cyber capabilities including knowledge of previously undiscovered (“zero day”) vulnerabilities.

[…]

What’s more disturbing is the way that the folks at HBGary – mostly Aaron Barr, but others as well – came to view the infowar tactics they were pitching to the military and its contractors as applicable in the civilian context, as well. How effortlessly and seamlessly the focus on “advanced persistent threats” shifted from government backed hackers in China and Russia to encompass political foes like ThinkProgress or the columnist Glenn Greenwald. Anonymous may have committed crimes that demand punishment – but its up to the FBI to handle that, not “a large U.S. bank” or its attorneys.

Read the whole thing.

Posted on February 25, 2011 at 6:14 AMView Comments

Mohamed Osman Mohamud

I agree with Glenn Greenwald. I don’t know if it’s an actual terrorist that the FBI arrested, or if it’s another case of entrapment.

All of the information about this episode — all of it — comes exclusively from an FBI affidavit filed in connection with a Criminal Complaint against Mohamud. As shocking and upsetting as this may be to some, FBI claims are sometimes one-sided, unreliable and even untrue, especially when such claims — as here — are uncorroborated and unexamined.

This, although old, is relevant. So is this, although even older:

The JFK Airport plotters seem to have been egged on by an informant, a twice-convicted drug dealer. An FBI informant almost certainly pushed the Fort Dix plotters to do things they wouldn’t have ordinarily done. The Miami gang’s Sears Tower plot was suggested by an FBI undercover agent who infiltrated the group. And in 2003, it took an elaborate sting operation involving three countries to arrest an arms dealer for selling a surface-to-air missile to an ostensible Muslim extremist. Entrapment is a very real possibility in all of these cases.

In any case, notice that it was old-fashioned police investigation that caught this guy.

EDITED TO ADD (12/13): Another analysis.

Posted on November 30, 2010 at 5:54 AMView Comments

Did the FBI Invent the D.C. Bomb Plot?

Last week the police arrested Farooque Ahmed for plotting a terrorist attack on the D.C. Metro system. However, it’s not clear how much of the plot was his idea and how much was the idea of some paid FBI informants:

The indictment offers some juicy tidbits — Ahmed allegedly proposed using rolling suitcases instead of backpacks to bomb the Metro — but it is notably thin in details about the role of the FBI. It is not clear, for example, whether Ahmed or the FBI (or some combination of the two) came up with the concept of bombing the Metro in the first place. And the indictment does not say when and why Ahmed first encountered the people he believed to be members of al-Qaida.

Of course the police are now using this fake bomb plot to justify random bag searching in the Metro. (It’s a dumb idea.)

This is the problem with thoughtcrime. Entrapment is much too easy.

EDITED TO ADD (11/4): Much the same thing was written in The Economist blog.

Posted on November 3, 2010 at 7:06 AMView Comments

Terrorism Entrapment

Back in 2007, I wrote an essay, “Portrait of the Modern Terrorist as an Idiot,” where I said:

The JFK Airport plotters seem to have been egged on by an informant, a twice-convicted drug dealer. An FBI informant almost certainly pushed the Fort Dix plotters to do things they wouldn’t have ordinarily done. The Miami gang’s Sears Tower plot was suggested by an FBI undercover agent who infiltrated the group. And in 2003, it took an elaborate sting operation involving three countries to arrest an arms dealer for selling a surface-to-air missile to an ostensible Muslim extremist. Entrapment is a very real possibility in all of these cases.

Over on Salon, Stephan Salisbury has an essay on FBI entrapment and domestic terrorism plots. It’s well worth reading.

Posted on September 6, 2010 at 7:24 AMView Comments

This Week's Terrorism Arrests

Four points. One: There was little danger of an actual terrorist attack:

Authorities said the four men have long been under investigation and there was little danger they could actually have carried out their plan, NBC News’ Pete Williams reported.

[…]

In their efforts to acquire weapons, the defendants dealt with an informant acting under law enforcement supervision, authorities said. The FBI and other agencies monitored the men and provided an inactive missile and inert C-4 to the informant for the defendants, a federal complaint said.

The investigation had been under way for about a year.

“They never got anywhere close to being able to do anything,” one official told NBC News. “Still, it’s good to have guys like this off the street.”

Of course, politicians are using this incident to peddle more fear:

“This was a very serious threat that could have cost many, many lives if it had gone through,” Representative Peter T. King, Republican from Long Island, said in an interview with WPIX-TV. “It would have been a horrible, damaging tragedy. There’s a real threat from homegrown terrorists and also from jailhouse converts.”

Two, they were caught by traditional investigation and intelligence. Not airport security. Not warrantless eavesdropping. But old fashioned investigation and intelligence. This is what works. This is what keeps us safe. Here’s an essay I wrote in 2004 that says exactly that.

The only effective way to deal with terrorists is through old-fashioned police and intelligence work — discovering plans before they’re implemented and then going after the plotters themselves.

Three, they were idiots:

The ringleader of the four-man homegrown terror cell accused of plotting to blow up synagogues in the Bronx and military planes in Newburgh admitted to a judge today that he had smoked pot before his bust last night.

When U.S. Magistrate Judge Lisa M. Smith asked James Cromitie if his judgment was impaired during his appearance in federal court in White Plains, the 55-year-old confessed: “No. I smoke it regularly. I understand everything you are saying.”

Four, an “informant” helped this group a lot:

In April, Mr. Cromitie and the three other men selected the synagogues as their targets, the statement said. The informant soon helped them get the weapons, which were incapable of being fired or detonated, according to the authorities.

The warning the warning I wrote in “Portrait of the Modern Terrorist as an Idiot” is timely again:

Despite the initial press frenzies, the actual details of the cases frequently turn out to be far less damning. Too often it’s unclear whether the defendants are actually guilty, or if the police created a crime where none existed before.

The JFK Airport plotters seem to have been egged on by an informant, a twice-convicted drug dealer. An FBI informant almost certainly pushed the Fort Dix plotters to do things they wouldn’t have ordinarily done. The Miami gang’s Sears Tower plot was suggested by an FBI undercover agent who infiltrated the group. And in 2003, it took an elaborate sting operation involving three countries to arrest an arms dealer for selling a surface-to-air missile to an ostensible Muslim extremist. Entrapment is a very real possibility in all of these cases.

Actually, that whole 2007 essay is timely again. Some things never change.

Posted on May 22, 2009 at 6:11 AMView Comments

Web Entrapment

Frightening sting operation by the FBI. They posted links to supposed child porn videos on boards frequented by those types, and obtained search warrants based on access attempts.

This seems like incredibly flimsy evidence. Someone could post the link as an embedded image, or send out e-mail with the link embedded, and completely mess with the FBI’s data — and the poor innocents’ lives. Such are the problems when the mere clicking on a link is justification for a warrant.

See also this Slashdot thread and this article.

Posted on March 27, 2008 at 2:46 PMView Comments

Creating and Entrapping Terrorists

When I wrote this essay — “Portrait of the Modern Terrorist as an Idiot” — I thought a lot about the government inventing terrorist plotters and entrapping them, to make the world seem scarier. Since then, it’s been on my list of topics to write about someday.

Rolling Stone has this excellent article on the topic, about the Joint Terrorism Task Forces in the U.S.:

But a closer inspection of the cases brought by JTTFs reveals that most of the prosecutions had one thing in common: The defendants posed little if any demonstrable threat to anyone or anything. According to a study by the Center on Law and Security at the New York University School of Law, only ten percent of the 619 “terrorist” cases brought by the federal government have resulted in convictions on “terrorism-related” charges — a category so broad as to be meaningless. In the past year, none of the convictions involved jihadist terror plots targeting America. “The government releases selective figures,” says Karen Greenberg, director of the center. “They have never even defined ‘terrorism.’ They keep us in the dark over statistics.”

Indeed, Shareef is only one of many cases where the JTTFs have employed dubious means to reach even more dubious ends. In Buffalo, the FBI spent eighteen months tracking the “Lackawanna Six” — a half-dozen men from the city’s large Muslim population who had been recruited by an Al Qaeda operative in early 2001 to undergo training in Afghanistan. Only two lasted the six-week course; the rest pretended to be hurt or left early. Despite extensive surveillance, the FBI found no evidence that the men ever discussed, let alone planned, an attack — but that didn’t stop federal agents from arresting the suspects with great fanfare and accusing them of operating an “Al Qaeda-trained terrorist cell on American soil.” Fearing they would be designated as “enemy combatants” and disappeared into the legal void created by the Patriot Act, all six pleaded guilty to aiding Al Qaeda and were sentenced to at least seven years in prison.

In other cases, the use of informants has led the government to flirt with outright entrapment. In Brooklyn, a Guyanese immigrant and former cargo handler named Russell Defreitas was arrested last spring for plotting to blow up fuel tanks at JFK International Airport. In fact, before he encountered the might of the JTTF, Defreitas was a vagrant who sold incense on the streets of Queens and spent his spare time checking pay phones for quarters. He had no hope of instigating a terrorist plot of the magnitude of the alleged attack on JFK — until he received the help of a federal informant known only as “Source,” a convicted drug dealer who was cooperating with federal agents to get his sentence reduced. Backed by the JTTF, Defreitas suddenly obtained the means to travel to the Caribbean, conduct Google Earth searches of JFK’s grounds and build a complex, multifaceted, international terror conspiracy — albeit one that was impossible to actually pull off. After Defreitas was arrested, U.S. Attorney Roslynn Mauskopf called it “one of the most chilling plots imaginable.”

Using informants to gin up terrorist conspiracies is a radical departure from the way the FBI has traditionally used cooperating sources against organized crime or drug dealers, where a pattern of crime is well established before the investigation begins. Now, in new-age terror cases, the JTTFs simply want to establish that suspects are predisposed to be terrorists — even if they are completely unable or ill-equipped to act on that predisposition. High-tech video and audio evidence, coupled with anti-terror hysteria, has made it effectively impossible for suspects to use the legal defense of entrapment. The result in many cases has been guilty pleas — and no scrutiny of government conduct.

In most cases, because no trial is ever held, few details emerge beyond the spare and slanted descriptions in the indictments. When facts do come to light during a trial, they cast doubt on the seriousness of the underlying case. The “Albany Pizza” case provides a stark example. Known as a “sting case,” the investigation began in June 2003 when U.S. soldiers raided an “enemy camp” in Iraq and seized a notebook containing the name of an imam in Albany — one Yassin Aref. To snare Aref, the JTTF dispatched a Pakistani immigrant named Shahed “Malik” Hussain, who was facing years in prison for a driver’s-license scam. Instead of approaching Aref directly, federal agents sent Malik to befriend Mohammed Hossain, a Bangladeshi immigrant who went to the same mosque as Aref. Hossain, an American citizen who ran a place called Little Italy Pizzeria in Albany, had no connections whatsoever to terrorism or any form of radical Islam. After the attacks on 9/11, he had been quoted in the local paper saying, “I am proud to be an American.” But enticed by Malik, Hossain soon found himself caught up in a government-concocted terror plot. Posing as an arms dealer, Malik told Hossain that a surface-to-air missile was needed for an attack on a Pakistani diplomat in New York. He offered Hossain $5,000 in cash to help him launder $50,000 — a deal Hossain claims he never properly grasped. According to Muslim tradition, a witness is needed for significant financial transactions. Thus, the JTTF reached out for Hossain’s imam and the true target of the sting — Aref.

Posted on March 5, 2008 at 6:25 AMView Comments

Portrait of the Modern Terrorist as an Idiot

The recently publicized terrorist plot to blow up John F. Kennedy International Airport, like so many of the terrorist plots over the past few years, is a study in alarmism and incompetence: on the part of the terrorists, our government and the press.

Terrorism is a real threat, and one that needs to be addressed by appropriate means. But allowing ourselves to be terrorized by wannabe terrorists and unrealistic plots — and worse, allowing our essential freedoms to be lost by using them as an excuse — is wrong.

The alleged plan, to blow up JFK’s fuel tanks and a small segment of the 40-mile petroleum pipeline that supplies the airport, was ridiculous. The fuel tanks are thick-walled, making them hard to damage. The airport tanks are separated from the pipelines by cutoff valves, so even if a fire broke out at the tanks, it would not back up into the pipelines. And the pipeline couldn’t blow up in any case, since there’s no oxygen to aid combustion. Not that the terrorists ever got to the stage — or demonstrated that they could get there — where they actually obtained explosives. Or even a current map of the airport’s infrastructure.

But read what Russell Defreitas, the lead terrorist, had to say: “Anytime you hit Kennedy, it is the most hurtful thing to the United States. To hit John F. Kennedy, wow…. They love JFK — he’s like the man. If you hit that, the whole country will be in mourning. It’s like you can kill the man twice.”

If these are the terrorists we’re fighting, we’ve got a pretty incompetent enemy.

You couldn’t tell that from the press reports, though. “The devastation that would be caused had this plot succeeded is just unthinkable,” U.S. Attorney Roslynn R. Mauskopf said at a news conference, calling it “one of the most chilling plots imaginable.” Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pennsylvania) added, “It had the potential to be another 9/11.”

These people are just as deluded as Defreitas.

The only voice of reason out there seemed to be New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who said: “There are lots of threats to you in the world. There’s the threat of a heart attack for genetic reasons. You can’t sit there and worry about everything. Get a life…. You have a much greater danger of being hit by lightning than being struck by a terrorist.”

And he was widely excoriated for it.

This isn’t the first time a bunch of incompetent terrorists with an infeasible plot have been painted by the media as poised to do all sorts of damage to America. In May we learned about a six-man plan to stage an attack on Fort Dix by getting in disguised as pizza deliverymen and shooting as many soldiers and Humvees as they could, then retreating without losses to fight again another day. Their plan, such as it was, went awry when they took a videotape of themselves at weapons practice to a store for duplication and transfer to DVD. The store clerk contacted the police, who in turn contacted the FBI. (Thank you to the video store clerk for not overreacting, and to the FBI agent for infiltrating the group.)

The “Miami 7,” caught last year for plotting — among other things — to blow up the Sears Tower, were another incompetent group: no weapons, no bombs, no expertise, no money and no operational skill. And don’t forget Iyman Faris, the Ohio trucker who was convicted in 2003 for the laughable plot to take out the Brooklyn Bridge with a blowtorch. At least he eventually decided that the plan was unlikely to succeed.

I don’t think these nut jobs, with their movie-plot threats, even deserve the moniker “terrorist.” But in this country, while you have to be competent to pull off a terrorist attack, you don’t have to be competent to cause terror. All you need to do is start plotting an attack and — regardless of whether or not you have a viable plan, weapons or even the faintest clue — the media will aid you in terrorizing the entire population.

The most ridiculous JFK Airport-related story goes to the New York Daily News, with its interview with a waitress who served Defreitas salmon; the front-page headline blared, “Evil Ate at Table Eight.”

Following one of these abortive terror misadventures, the administration invariably jumps on the news to trumpet whatever ineffective “security” measure they’re trying to push, whether it be national ID cards, wholesale National Security Agency eavesdropping or massive data mining. Never mind that in all these cases, what caught the bad guys was old-fashioned police work — the kind of thing you’d see in decades-old spy movies.

The administration repeatedly credited the apprehension of Faris to the NSA’s warrantless eavesdropping programs, even though it’s just not true. The 9/11 terrorists were no different; they succeeded partly because the FBI and CIA didn’t follow the leads before the attacks.

Even the London liquid bombers were caught through traditional investigation and intelligence, but this doesn’t stop Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff from using them to justify (.pdf) access to airline passenger data.

Of course, even incompetent terrorists can cause damage. This has been repeatedly proven in Israel, and if shoe-bomber Richard Reid had been just a little less stupid and ignited his shoes in the lavatory, he might have taken out an airplane.

So these people should be locked up … assuming they are actually guilty, that is. Despite the initial press frenzies, the actual details of the cases frequently turn out to be far less damning. Too often it’s unclear whether the defendants are actually guilty, or if the police created a crime where none existed before.

The JFK Airport plotters seem to have been egged on by an informant, a twice-convicted drug dealer. An FBI informant almost certainly pushed the Fort Dix plotters to do things they wouldn’t have ordinarily done. The Miami gang’s Sears Tower plot was suggested by an FBI undercover agent who infiltrated the group. And in 2003, it took an elaborate sting operation involving three countries to arrest an arms dealer for selling a surface-to-air missile to an ostensible Muslim extremist. Entrapment is a very real possibility in all of these cases.

The rest of them stink of exaggeration. Jose Padilla was not actually prepared to detonate a dirty bomb in the United States, despite histrionic administration claims to the contrary. Now that the trial is proceeding, the best the government can charge him with is conspiracy to murder, kidnap and maim, and it seems unlikely that the charges will stick. An alleged ringleader of the U.K. liquid bombers, Rashid Rauf, had charges of terrorism dropped for lack of evidence (of the 25 arrested, only 16 were charged). And now it seems like the JFK mastermind was more talk than action, too.

Remember the “Lackawanna Six,” those terrorists from upstate New York who pleaded guilty in 2003 to “providing support or resources to a foreign terrorist organization”? They entered their plea because they were threatened with being removed from the legal system altogether. We have no idea if they were actually guilty, or of what.

Even under the best of circumstances, these are difficult prosecutions. Arresting people before they’ve carried out their plans means trying to prove intent, which rapidly slips into the province of thought crime. Regularly the prosecution uses obtuse religious literature in the defendants’ homes to prove what they believe, and this can result in courtroom debates on Islamic theology. And then there’s the issue of demonstrating a connection between a book on a shelf and an idea in the defendant’s head, as if your reading of this article — or purchasing of my book — proves that you agree with everything I say. (The Atlantic recently published a fascinating article on this.)

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have all the facts in any of these cases. None of us do. So let’s have some healthy skepticism. Skepticism when we read about these terrorist masterminds who were poised to kill thousands of people and do incalculable damage. Skepticism when we’re told that their arrest proves that we need to give away our own freedoms and liberties. And skepticism that those arrested are even guilty in the first place.

There is a real threat of terrorism. And while I’m all in favor of the terrorists’ continuing incompetence, I know that some will prove more capable. We need real security that doesn’t require us to guess the tactic or the target: intelligence and investigation — the very things that caught all these terrorist wannabes — and emergency response. But the “war on terror” rhetoric is more politics than rationality. We shouldn’t let the politics of fear make us less safe.

This essay originally appeared on Wired.com.

EDITED TO ADD (6/14): Another essay on the topic.

Posted on June 14, 2007 at 8:28 AMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.