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Remember that Oregon man implicated in the Madrid bombing case? Here's the FBI's apology to him. (Via Crooked Timber)

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  1. Wait, I thought that whenever the gov’t accuses somebody of being a terrorist the gov’t is automatically right and there’s no need to give the evidence a closer examination. What gives?

  2. 1. He’s a Muslim.
    2. He had done legal work for a “Portland Seven” defendant.
    3. They (supposedly) found a matching partial fingerprint on 3/11 materials.
    4. He wasn’t charged, he was detained as a material witness.
    5. He got an apology.
    6. If he had been involved and nothing had been done, imagine the screaming.

  3. Lonewacko-

    I agree that the system worked: There was evidence that, at first examination, looked suspicious. It was examined more carefully, and it turned out to be nothing so he got his apology.

    And the fact that the system worked is exactly my point: We should let the system work and not try to short-circuit it as some have argued for in the past. We’re less likely to make mistakes, or to leave mistakes uncorrected, if we let the system work. And this case proves it.

  4. still waiting for the apology …

  5. Interesting how security personnel who know they’ll eventually have to prove their case are so careful about making sure they don’t waste time with innocent people.

  6. What gives, thoreau, it that you are wrong, as usual.

    But it seems to amuse you, and it doesn’t harm anyone, so I guess this is the place for it.

  7. How is Thoreau wrong in saying that the system should be allowed to work as intended?

  8. Jennifer-

    Given the nick-name “Dictator for Hire”, it’s entirely possible that he actually agrees with me and is trying to make it sound like only a dictator would disagree with my call for due process. And if that’s the case then he has a point. I’m sure the Stasi and KGB would disagree with my arguments in favor of due process.

    (Hey, look everybody, Thoreau just portrayed Communists as the villains! Any libertarian brownie points for that?)

  9. Thoreau-
    I think I need to get more sleep. Working as a copyeditor for the military-industrial complex makes it easy to not notice sarcasm.

  10. thoreau,

    Actually, the system didn’t work; which is why he was detained. If the FBI had actually done their job correctly there would have been no detention to begin with.

    “1. He’s a Muslim.”

    Sorry, but the Constitution protects freedom of worship, and freedom of association; indeed, the government may not get a warrant – under FISA or simply a regular warrant – under such a basis as you propose.

    “2. He had done legal work for a ‘Portland Seven’ defendant.”

    What a chilling effect such an attitude could have on the defense attorney business.

    “3. They (supposedly) found a matching partial fingerprint on 3/11 materials.”

    No, they misidentified a photograph of a fingerprint – they did not look at the real print itself. This was a major screw-up on their part.

    “4. He wasn’t charged, he was detained as a material witness.”

    The problem with such warrants and detentions is that they allow the sort of star chamber like warrants and proceedings that the 4th Amendment was intended to protect us from.

    “5. He got an apology.”

    I hope he sues under a Bivens action; indeed, I hope he royally nails the morons who placed him custody as a result of their absolute incompetance.

    “6. If he had been involved and nothing had been done, imagine the screaming.”

    Perhaps a more reasonable course would have been to actually do their job competantly.

  11. thoreau,

    BTW, your argument that the system “works” is a complete and total canard. I have some expertise in this area and can tell you that the vast majority of those held under these sorts of warrants were held in violation of U.S. law, and that the U.S. courts has continually chastised the government for such.

    Also, the U.S. government acts as if the Great Writ has been suspended, when it hasn’t been; indeed, this administration in particular acts like it can suspend the Great Writ on its own, without the approval of Congress, though clearly it is the Congress’ role to suspend it.

    Sorry, but I have no patience for those who would whittle away liberties in this country based on some myth about the system working.

  12. Gary-

    I’m not defending everything that happened in the investigation. I’m just pointing out that in the end the state’s suspicions were debunked and the guy went free, precisely because evidence was subject to scrutiny. If we followed the advice of some posters on this forum there would have been no further scrutiny once the initial suspicions were raised.

    In that sense, the system did in fact work: Erroneous suspicions were debunked and an innocent man went free. I won’t defend the fact that he was detained in the first place, but I will praise his release, and suggest that maybe some posters here should take notice of that fact. The best way to fight terrorists is with smart decisions, not hasty decisions.

    Anyway, every time I adopt a moderate tone while arguing against extreme viewpoints, inevitably somebody from the other side argues with me 🙁

  13. thoreau,

    “I’m not defending everything that happened in the investigation. I’m just pointing out that in the end the state’s suspicions were debunked and the guy went free, precisely because evidence was subject to scrutiny. If we followed the advice of some posters on this forum there would have been no further scrutiny once the initial suspicions were raised.”

    Well, to be blunt, that’s largely what occurs anyway. I’m rather shocked they let this fish go so quick; I suspect it has something to do with the Spanish government involvement though.

    “In that sense, the system did in fact work: Erroneous suspicions were debunked and an innocent man went free. I won’t defend the fact that he was detained in the first place, but I will praise his release, and suggest that maybe some posters here should take notice of that fact. The best way to fight terrorists is with smart decisions, not hasty decisions.”

    Well, we are still awaiting smart decisions. Again, I hope he brings a Bivens actions against these bastards.

  14. Gary-

    You have to consider the audience I was addressing: Forum posters who think any terrorist suspect (not convicted terrorists, just suspects) should be shipped off to Gitmo without trial. I was trying to point out that now and then the gov’t makes mistakes, so maybe it’s a good idea to subject evidence to review.

    My statements about how “the system worked” were an effort to be a little less radical and confrontational.

  15. “Actually, the system didn’t work”

    Yeah, to elaborate a bit the only thing that saved Mr Mayfield from a much longer stay in club fed was the persistance of the spanish authorities.

    Said the FBI:
    “Utilizing the additional information acquired this weekend in Spain, the FBI lab has now determined that the latent print previously identified as a fingerprint of Mayfield to be of no value for identification purposes.”

    So, usually when you get a noisy fax copy you can tell right away. This must have been one of those special bad copies that don’t look like a bad copy?

    Said Mayfield’s lawyer:
    “But for the unusual circumstance of another national police agency conducting its own independent investigation, Mr. Mayfield would still be incarcerated.”

    I wouldn’t call it unusual that the Spanish police are still investigating the bombing, but not automatically stopping their fingerprint analysis when our FBI said they had a certain match is a good bit of luck for Mayfield.

  16. Does/did the arrest of this person count as one of the Bush Administration’s successes against terrorism they always boost about?

  17. I am going to make a distinction between machine classification and hand classification. Artificial intelligence does not work as well as its proponents claim. There are limits to what a computer can do in looking at actual fingerprints, or high quality photographs of them. If you have, say, a few million records to sort through, it is very tempting to let the machine crunch through what it can, and then look at whatever is left. I think what happened is as follows:

    The FBI received a partial print, and fed it into their computer. The computer reported back that the print was compatible with about a million Americans. This was in and of itself a slight distortion. It was not the print which was compatible, but the abstraction formed from the print which was being compared. Automation may have played a role. A fingerprint examiner who looks at a print and says, “that’s a loop, a whorl, etc.,” consciously knows that he is abstracting. He can go back and recognize borderline cases when he sees them. An examiner who feeds a bitmap image into an AI program is likely to be profoundly ignorant of the assumption-based nature of the process.

    Faced with a million records, the FBI used the computer to cross-reference the list against a “watch list,” which included Brandon Mayfield because of his legal work for Islamic militants. Now, what they should have done at this stage was to go back and check the fingerprints by hand. I think that you will find when the evidence is eventually published that the fax copy the FBI had initially been sent was good enough to reject Brandon Mayfield. However, if the FBI’s sorting process had only left them with one suspect, they would not be disposed to do this, because it would mean admitting failure. Failure was inevitable, of course, because the culprit was actually a North African. The officer who made the decision to arrest Mayfield probably did not know enough about fingerprinting to know what questions to ask.

    It is basically not plausible that the Spaniards would have sent a low-quality fax. “Fax” is probably a misnomer, just as one speaks of xeroxing things on a Cannon or Ricoh photocopier. The logical thing to send would have been a great big JPEG file, or files, say, round about a megabyte per finger, as attachments to an e-mail. That would do to get the search rolling, and a photographic copy for “chain of evidence” could follow in the mail.

    What it works out to is that Brandon Mayfield was arrested for his legal work, not for the resemblance of his fingerprints. In effect, the FBI unconsciously decided to arrest an “Arab-American or Arab sympathizer, or someone like that” and then used the fingerprints to choose someone from this category.

  18. Gary,

    A series of facts, each of which by itself is innocuous, can add up to a reasonable suspicion. It’s called “circumstantial evidence,” and its use to justify further investigation is both common and appropriate. Especially when there is physical evidence which supports the conclusion drawn from the circumstantial evidence.

  19. A Bivens action for what? “Incompetence” is not grounds for a Bivens action. And detaining a person who isn’t guilty isn’t “incompetence,” anyway.

    No, they misidentified a photograph of a fingerprint – they did not look at the real print itself. This was a major screw-up on their part.

    Of course they looked at a photograph rather than the print itself; that’s standard. You think fingerprint labs generally carry walls, doorknobs, cars, etc., around with them? Or do you think they photograph the prints and compare those photographs to their database? There’s no “screw-up” there.

    If the photograph was of poor quality, as the press release implies, then that was certainly a mistake, but mistakes are neither “incompetence” nor a violation of someone’s rights.

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