Plodding Plotters

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Writing in the Boston Phoenix, Reason contributor Harvey Silverglate worries that the Bush administration's recent arrests of terrorist wannabes accused of quarter-baked plans to attack the Sears Tower and the Holland Tunnel expand the concept of conspiracy and threaten freedom of speech.

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  1. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again:

    Al Qaeda is an utterly clownshoes operation.

  2. So if the government stops a terror attack before it succeeds, this threatens freedom of speech, and it’s done for devious political motives. But if the attack isn’t stopped before it succeeds, the government is incompetent at best, or allowing it to happen for devious political motives. Sometimes you just can’t win, eh?

    Silvergate [note correct spelling] reminds me of that Salon article circa 2000, arguing that the threat of terrorism was vastly exaggerated and that we really didn’t have anything to worry about. Very prescient.

    I’m all in favor of free speech, but the free speech of jihadists who talk about blowing up tunnels and office buildings? Not so much.

  3. I’ve been waiting for this idea to crop up.

    The problem with modern terrorism, especially the kind that will strike the US internal is that there is virtually no time gap between “just talk” and Kaboom. Terrorist don’t have to assemble armies or a great deal of equipment after all. Neither do they wish to stockpile material resources because such materials are easy to discover. They wait to last possible minute before performing any act that might leave physical evidence.

    The truck bomb used in the 1993 World Trade center attack was assembled the night before the morning of the attack using materials purchased legally the previous day. So prior to 24 hours before the attack, the plot would have looked to be “just talk.” Ditto for 9/11 which used no material resources of any kind. Up until they started slitting throats, 9/11 was literally nothing but talk.

    This is yet another hazard of thinking of terrorism in terms of civil crime and not military attacks. The evidentiary threshold that would apply in a civil case might not exist until the very moment of the attack.

  4. “So if the government stops a terror attack before it succeeds, this threatens freedom of speech, and it’s done for devious political motives.”

    It’s a threat to free speech if the arrests are made before the alleged conspirators engage in an “overt act,” which is the traditional prerequisite to a valid conspiracy/attempt charge.

  5. It would seem to me that there’s a middle ground between arresting people based solely on conversations, and holding off on the arrest until you meet a threshold that may be impossible before it’s too late:

    Follow them every freaking step of the way. Sure, it would be expensive, but in cases that are said to be a slam dunk it would be worth the expense. Plus, it would be interesting to see whom they turn to for help.

    Also, while the time between the first concrete action and the actual attack may be brief, the time between a conversation and the first truly concrete action may be longer: They’ll have to spend at least a little time scoping out their targets. If they’re as dangerous as Shannon believes, then they won’t be dumb enough to show up with a homemade bomb in a tunnel that they’ve never visited before, having no idea whether there are cameras in the tunnel, easy access to vulnerable points, etc.

    So, if there’s a truly damning conversation, and you know that it happened, why not simply use every available resource to track them every step of the way, including a whole bunch of people in civilian clothes? Not only does it mean more evidence for a conviction (a concept that Shannon might not care about), it also means a chance to see who else the bad guys deal with. Whom do they turn to for support? Who helps them enter the country? Who gives them money? Does anybody help them with a plausible cover story? Does anybody lend them a car to put the explosives in?

  6. Oh, and it might be interesting to see who backs out between the time that an agreement is reached in a chatroom and the time that the fertilizer is purchased. The guys who get cold feet might know all sorts of interesting things that they’re willing to talk about in exchange for a deal. Things that they might have been less willing to talk about when it was all still brave talk and the reality hadn’t yet sunk in.

    In short, I can think of lots of reasons to keep a close eye on the guys that you know are guilty.

  7. Of course, the tunnels created during Boston’s Big Dig are able to collapse without any assitance from terrorists whatsoever.

  8. According to a recent California Supreme Court ruling, a writing must contain an “immediate threat” to be illegal. In that case, a student writing “For I can be the next kid to bring guns to kill students at school” wasn’t enough to be an immediate threat, because he wrote he “can,” not that he would.

    But I’d say these jihadists were violating existing law, because even a half-assed plan to blow things up is going beyond what they could do into what they would do.

  9. I agree with you PapayaSF. But, can you trust this administration to be truthful in the difference between could and would? Many of the arrest prior to this one shown no concern for the could or would line you draw. Remember the guy is Oregon (I think) they said his finger prints implicated him in the Madrid bombing? It end up not being his prints at all. With this sort of “quality” in play, the could/would line you present, is in danger.

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