The newest fear-mongering campaign from the Right and the media

Claims that Terrorists can't be convicted in our civilian courts, or that it is too dangerous to imprison Terrorists inside the U.S., are empirically false


Glenn Greenwald
January 23, 2009 6:35PM (UTC)

(Updated below - Update II - Update III -Update IV - Update V - Updated VI)

The latest fear-mongering campaign in the U.S. -- this one devoted to scaring Americans that they will be slaughtered if Guantanamo is closed and Terrorism suspects are brought into the U.S. for real trials -- is now in full swing.  The New York Times today prints a front-page article claiming that a detainee released from Guantanamo last year has now become "the deputy leader of Al Qaeda’s Yemeni branch" (it's always amazing how bureaucratically structured Al Qaeda is alleged to be and how well we can discern the structure:  "Deputy Leader, Yemen Branch"; do they have business cards and organizational charts?).

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But the real fear-mongering is focused on all of the attacks that American communities will suffer if we imprison dangerous Terrorists inside the U.S. rather than in Guantanamo. House Minority Leader John Boehner wants you to be frightened:  "I think the first thing we have to remember is that we're talking about terrorists here.  Do we bring them into our borders?" GOP House Minority Whip Eric Cantor warned:  "Actively moving terrorists inside our borders weakens our security.  Most families neither want nor need hundreds of terrorists seeking to kill Americans in their communities."   The always frightened Wall St. Journal Editorial Page shrieks that any place that houses Al Qaeda Terrorists will become a "target" for attack:

The military base [at Ft. Leavenworth] is integrated into the community and, lacking Guantanamo's isolation and defense capacities, would instantly become a potential terror target. Expect similar protests from other states that are involuntarily entered in this sweepstakes.

National Review's Jim Geraghaty spent all day yesterday fantasizing about all the scary things that could happen if we have Al-Qaeda Terrorists in our communities (near nuclear facilities and airports!).  Former Bush aide and chief speechwriter Marc Thiessen warned yesterday in The Washington Post that if there is a Terrorist attack on U.S. soil, Americans will blame Obama because he stopped torturing and closed Guantanamo, and Democrats will be "unelectable for a generation." Today, at National Review, Thiessen, citing yesterday's Executive Orders, declared Obama "to be the most dangerous man ever to occupy the Oval Office."  And yesterday, of course, The Washington Post's Fred Hiatt echoed the standard claim that our regular federal courts were inadequate to try dangerous Terrorists.

All of this is pure fear-mongering -- the 2009 version of Condoleezza Rice's mushroom cloud and Jay Rockefeller's "we'll-lose-our-eavesdropping-capabilities" cries.  Both before and after 9/11, the U.S. has repeatedly and successfully tried alleged high-level Al Qaeda operatives and other accused Islamic Terrorists in our normal federal courts -- in fact, the record is far more successful than the series of debacles that has taken place in the military commissions system at Guantanamo.  Moreover, those convicted Terrorists have been housed in U.S. prisons, inside the U.S., for years without a hint of a problem.  Here is but a partial list of the accused Muslim Terrorists who have been successfully tried and convicted in U.S. civilians courts and who remain imprisoned inside the U.S.:

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That's just a partial list.  Both pre- and post-9/11, there are numerous other individuals who have been convicted in U.S. civilian courts of various acts relating to terrorism inspired by Islamic radicalism, including many alleged to be high-level Terrorists, who are now serving sentences inside the U.S., in U.S. prisons.  Moreover, terrorists accused of being members of Al Qaeda and affiliated groups have been successfully tried in the regular courts of other countries -- including Britain and Spain -- and currently sit in those countries' regular prisons, without a whiff of a problem.

If it were really the goal of Terrorists to attack American prisons where their members are incarcerated and if they were actually capable of doing that, they already have a long list of "targets" and have had such a list for two decades.  If U.S. civilian courts were inadequate forums for obtaining convictions of Terrorism suspects, then the above-listed individuals would not be imprisoned -- most of them for life -- while the Guantanamo military commission system still has nothing to show for it other than a series of humiliating setbacks for the Government.  As is true for virtually every fear-mongering claim made over the last eight years to frighten Americans into believing that they must vest the Government with vast and un-American powers lest they be slaughtered by the Terrorists, none of these claims is remotely rational and all of them are empirically disproven.

* * * * * 

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On an unrelated note:  Forbes has a list of what it calls "The 25 Most Influential Liberals in the U.S. Media," and it illustrates quite well why I find these labels far more obfuscating than anything else.  Any political term that supposedly encompasses Rachel Maddow, Paul Krugman, Bill Moyers and me (#18) -- along with the likes of Maureen Dowd, Christopher Hitchens, Chris Matthews, Tom Friedman and Fred Hiatt -- is not a term that has any meaning.  In fact, if I had to create my own list of the 25 Most Noxious Media Figures in the U.S., it would include several of the people on that list, including most if not all of the names in between those dashes above (classifying everyone as a "liberal" who isn't Rush Limbaugh is one of the critical tools for maintaining the myth of the Liberal Media).  Notably, the Forbes list -- compiled by "canvassing the views of more than 100 academics, politicians and journalists" -- contains numerous individuals primarily known as "bloggers" (in fact, almost 1/3 of the list:  8 of the 25).

UPDATE: The crime for which Omar Abdel Rahman was convicted and for which he's currently serving a life sentence in Colorado is the February 26, 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, of which Rahman was the alleged "mastermind."  That terrorist attack took place just seven weeks after Bill Clinton was inaugurated, but after that attack -- to use the Beltway parlance -- Clinton kept us safe, for the rest of his presidency.  No more foreign Terrorist attacks on the Homeland.  It wasn't until Clinton left the Oval Office and George Bush became President were Islamic Terrorists able to strike the Homeland again.  

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Therefore, using the reasoning of Bush followers everywhere, this means that Clinton's counter-terrorism policies -- i.e.:  trying accused Terrorists in civilian courts and incarcerating them in U.S. prisons -- have been proven to be extremely effective in keeping us safe (since, as any beginning student of Logic will tell you:  if A precedes B, then it means that A caused B -- as in:  A = "waterboarding, torture and GITMO," and B = "no Terrorist attack on U.S. soil from 2002-2008").  Using that same "logic":  A = "trying Terrorists in civilian courts and imprisoning them in the U.S.," and B = "no foreign Terrorist attacks in the U.S. from February, 1993 through the end of the Clinton presidency."

 

UPDATE II: At Andrew Sullivan's blog, both Patrick Appel and Chris Bodenner add some illuminating information about dangerous Terrorists currently incarcerated inside the U.S.

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UPDATE III: This is the first line of Mark Mazzetti and Scott Shane's New York Times article today on this subject:  "Is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed coming to a prison near you?"  It's appropriate that scare lines from horror films are the centerpiece of our political debates.  It continues:

Republican lawmakers, who oppose Mr. Obama’s plan, found a talking point with political appeal. They said closing Guantánamo could allow dangerous terrorists to get off on legal technicalities and be released into quiet neighborhoods across the United States. If the detainees were convicted, the Republicans continued, American prisons housing terrorism suspects could become magnets for attacks.

"Magnets for attacks."  Mazzetti and Shane then offer this childish taunt:  "Meanwhile, none of the Democrats who on Thursday hailed the closing of the detention camp were stepping forward to offer prisons in their districts or states to receive the prisoners."  Actually, Jack Murtha did, but we don't make these sorts of decisions by holding auctions among members of Congress.  Security needs and available prison space should govern the decision.  

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Mazzetti and Shane never mention that there are already numerous convicted Terrorists imprisoned in the U.S., including ones alleged to be Al Qaeda operatives, either because they didn't know that or they didn't think it was relevant to assessing these fear-mongering claims.

 

UPDATE IV: In response to what I wrote this morning in Update III, I received an email from The New York Times' Scott Shane objecting to several of the points I made.  He also made some general observations about the relationship between bloggers and -- as he puts it -- "MSM."  I offered to post his email in full, as I think it will be illuminating, but until I hear back from him, there is one objection he made that is clearly correct: 

My statement -- "Mazzetti and Shane never mention that there are already numerous convicted Terrorists imprisoned in the U.S., including ones alleged to be Al Qaeda operatives" -- is wrong.  In the article's 11th paragraph, they wrote:

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The number of detainees who may face federal trials — by various estimates, 50 to 100 of the remaining Guantánamo inmates — is tiny by the standards of the federal prison system, which currently holds 201,375 people in 114 facilities, according to Felicia Ponce, a spokeswoman for the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Those include 9 detention centers that hold defendants awaiting trial, 21 high-security penitentiaries and a supersecure prison in Florence, Colo., where several convicted terrorists are already locked up.

Several paragraphs later, they also quote an expert, Sarah Mendelson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, as saying:  "We’ve had extremely dangerous terrorists tried in various courts and put away."  I don't agree with the other points Shane made and hope he agrees that our exchange should be posted, but on that point, he is absolutely right:  he and Mazzetti did, contrary to what I wrote, include this important fact in their article. 

 

UPDATE V: Shane has agreed for our exchange to be posted.  In full, unedited form, it is here.

 

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UPDATE VI: The Times has now changed the headline on the Mazzetti/Shane article from its original GOP talking point:


That has now been replaced by this much more neutral headline:


SS to GG

Re: Imprisoned Terrorists

Hi Glenn -- Fun piece, and generally I don't mind being your straight man. It's entertaining, and I'm fascinated by the weird parasitical relationship between blogs and MSM. But I have a few gripes (and I could have sent you a similar list for several of your previous columns). When you write this kind of stuff, completely distorting our work, many of your fans who haven't bothered to read the original article send me abusive emails, which gets annoying.

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1) You wrongly suggest that we omitted Murtha's comments:

""Actually, Jack Murtha did , but we don't make these sorts of decisions by holding auctions among members of Congress.""

Here's what we wrote:

""One of the first Democrats in Congress to address the not-in-my-backyard issue directly was Representative John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania, who told reporters this week that terrorism suspects would be no more dangerous in a secure Pennsylvania prison than they were in Cuba. “There are thousands of dangerous prisoners being held securely behind bars in supermax prisons across the United States,” Mr. Murtha said Friday. He noted, however, that there was no supermax facility in his district.""

Contrary to your implication, Murtha specifically did not offer to take Gitmo detainees in his district.

2) You also say:

""Mazzetti and Shane never mention that there are already numerous convicted Terrorists imprisoned in the U.S., including ones alleged to be Al Qaeda operatives, either because they didn't know that or they didn't think it was relevant to assessing these fear-mongering claims.""

Wrong again. Of the federal prisons where these guys could end up, we wrote:

""Those include 9 detention centers that hold defendants awaiting trial, 21 high-security penitentiaries and a supersecure prison in Florence, Colo., where several convicted terrorists are already locked up."

3) In your accustomed eagerness to show your superiority to us non-opinion journalists, you portray our modest story as a one-sided piece of "fear-mongering." That's completely misleading, of course, and a point you can make only by omitting all the evidence to the contrary:  

-- We clearly portray the Republican comments as a highly political tactic: ""Republican lawmakers, who oppose Mr. Obama’s plan, found a talking point with political appeal.""

""Republican lawmakers have watched these struggles with a certain relish.""

 -- We report facts to remind readers that there are plenty of dangerous folks locked up in this country, and the Guantanamo graduates would add almost unnoticeably to the numbers:

 ""The number of detainees who may face federal trials — by various estimates, 50 to 100 of the remaining Guantánamo inmates — is tiny by the standards of the federal prison system, which currently holds 201,375 people in 114 facilities, according to Felicia Ponce, a spokeswoman for the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Those include 9 detention centers that hold defendants awaiting trial, 21 high-security penitentiaries and a supersecure prison in Florence, Colo., where several convicted terrorists are already locked up."

 -- We devote a big chunk of a short article to a scholar who has written a report on shutting Guantanamo and who thinks it's completely feasible to try these guys in federal court and keep them in federal prisons:

 ""Sarah E. Mendelson, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who led a study of options for closing Guantánamo, said it would be best if detainees facing prosecution were indicted while still at Guantánamo and then moved into federal pretrial facilities in the United States, which routinely house people accused of murder and other dangerous inmates.

“We’ve had extremely dangerous terrorists tried in various courts and put away,” Ms. Mendelson said.

Federal courts have convicted 145 people on terrorism-related charges since 2001, according to one review, while the military commissions at Guantánamo have been plagued with delays and legal setbacks. “The Obama administration has to have a little more of a conversation with the American people” about the feasibility of prosecuting terrorism suspects in the United States, she said. “There are plenty of Americans who would want to see some of these guys prosecuted and locked up.”""

Part of your schtick, I understand, is to ignore the traditional distinction between opinion writing and news writing, and pillory news writers for not writing opinion. But I would argue that there's value, as there always has been, in articles seeking to present facts and fairly characterize opposing points of view. There is also value in writing opinion pieces offering a point of view, as you do. But it's dishonest to distort an article like ours to fuel this notion that the MSM is a bunch of rubes who don't see the obvious truth that you see.

cheers

Scott Shane

 


GG to SS

Hi Scott -- I think you make some fair points, and in particular, your point #2 is absolutely right -- I wrote that you didn't mention that there were convicted terrorists already in American prisons when you clearly did. Your article wasn't the focal point of what I wrote -- it was an add-on update I wrote the next day (this morning) -- and, as a result, I wrote that without reading your article as carefully as I should have and normally would have if I had been focusing on it -- that's not an excuse for my error, just an explanation.

I'll be happy to post your response in full, and that's a standing offer any time I criticize something you write. Either way, I'll of course note that correction. I think there's value in having more, not less, interaction between journalists and those who are critical of their work.

As for your other points (in order):

(1) Murtha clearly did say what I said he said, just not in the quote you included in your article. According to the FoxNews.com article to which I linked: "Rep. Jack Murtha, D-Pa., says he'd be willing to house prisoners from Guantanamo Bay in his congressional district if President Obama makes good on a plan to close the U.S. prison there. . . . 'Sure, I'd take 'em,' said Murtha, an outspoken critic of the Iraq war. 'They're no more dangerous in my district than in Guantanamo.'"

(3) Whether your article unduly amplifies the GOP's "fear-mongering" is subjective, and the fact that you disagree with my assessment that it did hardly makes what I wrote "misleading." The very first line of your article repeats what the GOP is saying -- KSM will be in your community soon -- and you then repeat the snide (though irrational) argument that none of the Democratic critics of Guantanamo are offering up their districts -- as though that means anything.

As for your broader points: I'm always a little baffled when establishment journalists claim there is a "parasitical" relationship between them and bloggers. What that usually means -- though you're somewhat vague about what you mean by it -- is that bloggers, for free, feed off the hard work of journalists.

In fact, many bloggers do original research -- "journalism" by any measure -- which establishment journalists frequently use, often without credit. In fact, the piece of mine that you're complaining about has some of that in it, as do many others posts, from me and lots of others bloggers.

Additionally, as numerous NYT people will be happy to tell you, a significant strategy for newspapers is to generate online traffic from bloggers. Lots of bloggers -- even just single, stand-alone bloggers -- have readerships comparable in size to mid-sized newspapers. When bloggers of that sort link to your articles, even if it's to say things that you disagree with, that helps to sustain the newspaper business model.

The relationship may be parasitical (I actually think it's a lot more complementary than that), but if it is parasitical, it's reciprocally so.

Finally, I'm well aware of the distinction between fact reporting and opinion journalism. I don't think that reporters should include opinions in their articles and my criticisms aren't based on the expectation that what reporters write should be grounded in my own views. My criticisms are always grounded in the complaint that relevant facts aren't included, or are distorted, in order to promote a subjective narrative [for instance, my objection today (though it turned out to be inaccurate) was that you failed to include a relevant fact in your article: that there are already numerous terrorists in U.S. prisons].

It's just a cliche -- a defense mechanism -- for reporters to claim condescendingly that those who criticize their work simply don't understand what journalists are supposed to do. I understand what your role is supposed to be. My criticisms are that the role isn't being fulfilled.

The last time I criticized what you wrote, for instance, it was based on the ground that you MIS-STATED what the complaint was about John Brennan from those of us who were objecting to his nomination (http://www.salon.com/opinion/greenwald/2008/12/08/cia/). I wasn't arguing that you should have validated those objections, but rather, just that you should have stated those objections accurately -- or, as you put it: "present facts and fairly characterize opposing points of view." (And, for what it's worth, just days before that, I was your most enthusiastic defender when you were being criticized by the Colombia Journalism Review, Harper's and others for your article on Feinstein/Wyden's views on the Army Field Manual and your use of a partial quote from Feinstein: http://www.salon.com/opinion/greenwald/2008/12/05/torture/).

Thanks for the response. My inclination is to print your email response, but I'll wait to hear from you as to whether you'd prefer I didn't, or prefer I only post part of it.

Glenn Greenwald

 


SS to GG

Glenn, OK, symbiotic? You do reporting, I agree. But I think if you're honest with yourself, you'll acknowledge that part of your success is treating the NYT and others as a sort of launching pad for your opinions. That's fine, but not when you distort a piece as badly as you did today. You may post my reply if you want.

Scott

 


SS to GG

By the way, here's what Murtha's office sent me Friday as a statement from him:

"We currently don't have a maximum security prison, but if we did, sure I'd be willing to incarcerate them if it means the immediate closure of the disastrous Guantanamo detention facility."


Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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