In trying to prevent terrorist attacks, the U.S. risks eroding civil liberties

Published on NewsOK Modified: December 9, 2012 at 7:07 pm •  Published: December 9, 2012
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Under Obama we have seen the offices of longtime antiwar protesters in Chicago and Minneapolis raided on suspicion of providing “material support” to Palestinian and Colombian terrorist groups; in New Jersey, animal rights activists were convicted under a new law that makes any “interference” with an animal-related company a potential crime of terrorism; and in Oregon and Washington, environmental activists were similarly convicted as terrorists for arsons they had committed to protest public lands policies and wilderness development.

A chief repository of domestic intelligence data are the nation’s more than 70 “fusion centers.” Staffed by local, state and federal officials but largely funded by the Department of Homeland Security, these centers have been described by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano as among the “centerpieces of our counter-terrorism strategy.” But a Senate report published in October found that the intelligence produced by these centers was “often shoddy, rarely timely” and “more often than not unrelated to terrorism.” The investigation identified “no reporting which uncovered a terrorist threat, nor could it identify a contribution such fusion center reporting made to disrupt an active terrorist plot.”

The template of the government’s major “homegrown” plots, where informants largely invent the plot, agree to supply the weapons and encourage the inflammatory rhetoric that elevates the crime to the level of terrorism, continue to be cited under the Obama administration as evidence that we are winning the war on terror. But in the few instances where an actual attack was attempted — from the 2001 “shoe bomber,” Richard Reid, to the 2010 Times Square bomber, Faisal Shahzad — the plots have apparently surprised the law enforcement intelligence apparatus, and the attackers have been caught because of their own ineptness and the prompt actions of civilians.

That the pre-emptive paradigm is largely intact suggests we are still haunted by the failures of 9/11. It may be politically expedient for the president to err on the side of national security against civil liberties for fear of being seen as soft on terrorism, but he should consider his legacy. Bush is the president who launched the war on terror. Will Obama go down in history as the one who made it permanent?

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Petra Bartosiewicz’s book, “The Best Terrorists We Could Find,” is due to be published next year. She wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

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©2012 Los Angeles Times

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