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READING BETWEEN THE LINES
Why Ashcroft can't be trusted with our rights

By Lance Selfa | June 28, 2002 | Page 9

IN THE days following last September 11, news outlets filled with stories of supposed terrorist conspirators being rounded up. One prominent case focused on two Middle Eastern men who federal agents pulled from an Amtrak train in Texas.

They carried box cutters like the ones September 11 hijackers used. They packed hair dye. They were headed in the direction of Mexico. And they were "extremely nervous" when arrested.

With the two, Mohammed Azmath and Syed Gul Mohammed Shah, in custody, the feds carted boxloads of "evidence" from their Jersey City, N.J., apartment as a crowd outside chanted "USA! USA!"

Nine months later, Azmath and Shah have been cleared of any terrorist connections. It turns out that they used the box cutters for their work at a newsstand. And they used the hair dye, like millions of others do, to hold back their prematurely graying hair. They were traveling to Texas to open a fruit stand.

Azmath pled guilty to unrelated credit card fraud. A federal immigration judge ordered Shah voluntarily deported last December. Shah can apply for a visa to return to the U.S. any time.

This story, documented by Eric Boehlert in Salon magazine, should give pause to anyone willing to accept at face value Attorney General John Ashcroft's claims about the so-called "dirty bomber" arrested in May. It should raise questions about anything Ashcroft has claimed since September 11.

In fact, the vast majority of the 2,000 people pulled in under Ashcroft's dragnet have been released without charges. To date, only one person--Zacharias Moussaoui--has been charged in connection with the September 11 plot. And he was in jail for more than a month before the attacks.

The dragnet's result shows how much of the government's domestic "war on terrorism" is aimed at protecting highly placed rear ends rather than ordinary Americans. Ashcroft's announcement of the arrest of "dirty bomber" Abdullah al-Muhajir, almost seven weeks after al-Muhajir's actual arrest was well timed to sweep testimony of FBI and CIA incompetence off the front pages.

Likewise, the breathless reports of dragnet arrests--that law enforcement sources salt with seemingly shocking details, like suspects' possession of box cutters and hair dye--are meant to convey a government that's in charge and doing its job.

This covered for the fact that, in reality, the entire law enforcement and intelligence apparatus failed massively on September 11. The accumulated knowledge of what the FBI and CIA--and the White House--knew about the September 11 plot undercuts the entire rationale for the USA-PATRIOT Act.

Last fall, the standard story from the intelligence agencies portrayed agencies that didn't "have the tools they needed" to uncover and disrupt the plot. The USA-PATRIOT Act was supposed to provide them with those tools.

The FBI and CIA had more than enough "tools" to know that something was planned for September 11. Yet throughout the fall, Ashcroft and the intelligence agencies lied--and a craven Congress swallowed the lies--to push through the biggest assault on civil liberties since COINTELPRO.

Amazingly, the government has spun every revelation of intelligence agency incompetence into a new rationale for giving these agencies even more power and money. And the Bush administration shows every indication of wanting to stoke public fear for the most cynical political ends.

At this point, we don't know the half of what the government really knew. But we do know that thousands of people's lives have been ruined in a dragnet that blatantly profiled them according to their religion and national origin.

President Bush has said ad nauseam that the war on terrorism is aimed at defending "freedom" and "liberty." Meanwhile, his administration is waging the biggest war on freedom and liberty in the U.S. in a generation.

Just ask Mohammed Azmath and Syed Gul Mohammed Shah.

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