White House Discovers The Power of Fear Itself

The authoritarian impulse of the White House Republicans is showing. In their ongoing campaign to discourage dissent and squelch investigation, they’ve employed not only distraction but also, increasingly, the manipulation of public fear. The crescendo of alerts from Washington-which have included solemn warnings to watch out for enemy scuba-divers in the Puget Sound-culminated in a remarkable terror-mongering exercise earlier this week on the subject of “dirty bombs.”

The June 10 announcement that the government had captured an alleged American-born terrorist who was conspiring to detonate a radiation-spewing bomb among us was as frightening as any summer-movie plot. The advertising message, articulated from Moscow by Attorney General John Ashcroft himself, is to be very, very afraid. The national media cooperated magnificently in this effort.

On closer examination, however, the dirty-bomb plot turned out to be less terrifying than advertised. Although Jose Padilla, a.k.a. Abdullah al Muhajir, may well have intended some awful harm to this country, he appears to have had little if any means to inflict real damage. Although Mr. Ashcroft hyped the arrest of the former Chicago gang member and hotel banquet-waiter, and praised the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. for “capturing Abdullah al Muhajir before he could act on his deadly plan,” it turned out that this petty criminal didn’t really have much of a plan, deadly or otherwise. According to Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and F.B.I. director Robert Mueller, in fact, it isn’t clear that there was any “plan” for a radiological attack at all.

“I want to emphasize again that there was not an actual plan. We stopped this man in the initial planning stages,” Mr. Wolfowitz candidly explained. But if there wasn’t an imminent plan-or any plan-why was this alleged evildoer picked up as soon as he landed in the United States? And if the evidence against him was so compelling, why has he been held for a month without being charged?

It’s hard not to wonder about these questions, even at the risk of being deemed unpatriotic by Vice President Dick Cheney and other self-styled sentinels of acceptable opinion. While there’s reason to believe that Mr. Padilla is a bad guy, there is equal reason to wonder whether arresting him without sufficient evidence to indict was the wisest law-enforcement decision.

News reports suggest that American intelligence officials have been aware of his existence and connections to Al Qaeda for weeks and possibly months. They knew enough to detect him well before he tried to enter the country. But that raises the intriguing question of the opportunities lost by seizing him so quickly. With proper surveillance of his movements and contacts, the F.B.I. might have rolled up not just Mr. Padilla, but also whatever Al Qaeda confederates he’d been instructed to contact upon his return to the United States. He might even have committed an overt act that would have permitted his arrest on conspiracy charges.

Perhaps those who gave the order to grab Mr. Padilla hope to coax (or coerce) important information from him now that he’s in custody. Unfortunately, however, they’ll be doing so under the color of authority that violates basic civil liberties and constitutional traditions.

Suddenly, an American citizen can be detained indefinitely without being accused of any statutory offense, and can be deprived of all the rights previously afforded him under those lawful traditions, which date back beyond the beginnings of this Republic. To hear the Attorney General describe this situation is to realize that under certain circumstances, a citizen has fewer rights than an alien, who would at least be given the opportunity to defend himself in a military tribunal. Suddenly, the United States looks a little more like Castro’s Cuba or Pinochet’s Chile than it did a week ago.

Abrupt as this departure from normal constitutional processes is, freedom won’t disappear overnight in this country. In an atmosphere of terror, however, it can be eroded gradually, until the day arrives when critical viewpoints are delegitimized, important decisions are taken in secret, accountability is nullified, and democracy is eviscerated.

It’s understandable that the government wouldn’t want to take any chances in the Padilla matter. Law-enforcement officials may have worried that he would somehow slip his surveillance and then execute his plan (even if there was no actual plan yet). But their casual reliance upon unconstitutional methods is nevertheless disturbing.

Let there be no misunderstanding: The nation requires the best possible defense against the fanatical enemies who have declared their determination to destroy us. This may include the intensified surveillance of certain aliens and citizens as well as strong offensive countermeasures both here and abroad. But we do not need a Ministry of Fear that seeks political dominance by scaring the people, and that undermines the constitutional freedoms which this government is sworn to protect.