Terrorism prosecutions: Nowhere to go but up?

Alberto Gonzales promises better efforts. The track record isn't exactly inspiring.


Tim Grieve
March 14, 2006 11:00PM (UTC)

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales says that a new national security unit within the Department of Justice will provide prosecutors "with additional capacity to do their important job even better."

We sure hope he's right.

A federal judge in Virginia has called a halt to proceedings in the criminal case against Zacarias Moussaoui because of concerns over witness coaching by a government attorney. As the Los Angeles Times reports today, it's hardly the first time that a post-9/11 terrorism prosecution has run into embarrassing stumbles. "There have been a lot of flubs," George Washington University law professor Stephen A. Saltzburg tells the Times. "I think most observers would say they were underwhelmed by the prosecutions brought so far."

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Some of the highlights, such as they are:

Zacarias Moussaoui: Although he insists that he is "not 9/11 material," Moussaoui has pleaded guilty to criminal charges alleging that he participated in the conspiracy to hijack planes and slam them into buildings in the United States. Witnesses were to testify in sentencing proceedings this week -- the government is seeking the death penalty -- but U.S. District Court Judge Leonie Brinkema put matters on hold Monday in the wake of what she called the "most egregious violation of a court's rule on witnesses" she had ever seen. Carla J. Martin, an attorney for the Transportation Security Administration, has apparently been providing updates from the courtroom to seven current and former government employees who were scheduled to testify -- a violation of Brinkema's order that witnesses should not be informed of developments in the case. In court today, Brinkema is trying to determine just how badly potential witnesses have been tainted. She told Martin that she should return to court Wednesday with a lawyer of her own." You violated a court order," Brinkema said, "and could be held in civil or criminal contempt."

Jose Padilla: When Jose Padilla was taken into custody in 2002, then Attorney General John Ashcroft proclaimed that law enforcement officials had broken up a plot to set off a "dirty bomb" in the United States. Over the course of the next three years, the Bush administration moved Padilla out of the criminal justice system and into military custody and then back into the criminal justice system again -- first to avoid having to come up with evidence sufficient to hold him, then to avoid what look liked a sure defeat in the U.S. Supreme Court. Now that the Justice Department has finally charged Padilla with a crime, it's not the one that Ashcroft announced back in 2002; he has been tacked on to an existing conspiracy case in Miami that has nothing to do with any "dirty bomb" plot.

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Brandon Mayfield: The FBI arrested Mayfield in connection with the Madrid train bombings but ultimately had to apologize to the Oregon man after admitting that it had blown a fingerprint match. The FBI continued to insist that Mayfield was involved long after Spanish authorities informed the bureau that fingerprints it had analyzed didn't match Mayfield's; the FBI had other evidence, including "Spanish documents" -- apparently, homework belonging to one of Mayfield's kids -- found during a secret Patriot Act search of Mayfield's home.


Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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