Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft has touted his efforts to nab "sleeper cells" inside the United States. But Ashcroft and his associates too often have sleepwalked. The Justice Department's admission Wednesday of potentially criminal prosecutorial misconduct in a prominent Detroit terrorism case does good for the cause of trampled civil liberties but doesn't inspire much confidence about efforts to find real terrorists who may be lurking in the U.S.
Federal prosecutors arrested four defendants in Detroit a week after Sept. 11, 2001, accusing them of conspiring to launch attacks on targets such as the U.S.' Incirlik Air Base in Turkey. In June 2003, a jury convicted two of aiding terrorists and one of document fraud alone. One was acquitted. On Thursday, a federal judge threw out the convictions because, among other things, prosecutors withheld a jailhouse letter discrediting the government's star witness and mischaracterized doodles in a sketchbook as drawings of likely terror targets.
If this were an isolated instance, it would be one thing. But other cases have gone belly-up. In May, Ashcroft and the FBI targeted Brandon Mayfield, a 37-year-old Oregon lawyer, as being linked to the Madrid bombings. Defying the findings of Spanish investigators, they insisted that his fingerprints matched those on a plastic bag connected to the bombings. They didn't, and Mayfield was unconditionally released. Most recently, the Justice Department lost a case against a computer student in Boise, Idaho, who was acquitted of charges that he was raising money for terrorist causes.
Less consequential but more absurd is the U.S. revocation of a work/residence visa to Tariq Ramadan, a Muslim scholar from Geneva who was scheduled to teach Islamic studies this fall at the University of Notre Dame. Ramadan, whose extensive writings contain fuel for friend and foe alike, repudiates terror and says in an opinion piece in The New York Times that he merely seeks "a way for Muslims to remain faithful to their principles and, at the same time, face the challenges of the contemporary world." If anything, the administration is turning him into a martyr and giving him free publicity.
Some will seize on these incidents to accuse the administration of an anti-Muslim vendetta. But the FBI also is mired in a murky investigation of the Defense Department's dealings with Israel. So it probably isn't anti-Muslim malice, or at least that alone, at work. It's more like ambitious employees intent on pleasing an authoritarian boss by any means possible.