No Margin For Error In Terror War

An American lawyer named Brandon Mayfield was arrested last Thursday. Reports indicated that his fingerprints were found on one of the bags holding the explosives that blew up in Madrid on March 11. Adding to the suspicion was that he was a convert to Islam — and therefore possibly, like John Walker Lindh, a convert to radical jihad ideology. Among Mayfield’s clients had been another Muslim convert, Jeffrey Battle, who was convicted some time ago of participating in a conspiracy to aid Al-Qaeda. (Mayfield didn’t represent him on that case, but on an earlier one involving child custody.)

But a significant question arose almost immediately. Not long after the FBI took Mayfield into custody, Spanish officials expressed grave reservations about the incriminating fingerprint (it turned out to be just one). It was, they contended, not similar enough to fingerprints known to be Mayfield’s.

Now, I’m not saying that Mayfield is innocent. Nor am I saying he’s guilty. What I am saying is the FBI better have more than a single fingerprint on which to base their case, and that they need to make their case as convincing in the court of public opinion as in a court of law. They need to assure Americans that they do have other evidence — even if they’re not able to say what it is at this point. This is because there is no way for cases like this not to be highly politicized from the beginning. The doubts about the fingerprint just feed suspicions such as those expressed by Mayfield’s brother: “I think the reason they are holding him is because he is of the Muslim faith and because he is not super happy with the Bush administration.”

The idea that the FBI is now rounding up random Muslims and critics of the Bush Administration is a cherished fantasy of the loony Left, but cases like this only feed the paranoia. If the fingerprint turns out definitively to be not Mayfield’s, his case will form a nice companion, in the hysterical annals of Bushitler’s reign of terror, to that of Muslim Army Chaplain James Yee. Yee was arrested last September and suspected of mishandling classified documents at Guantanamo; officials intimated that a treason charge could be in the offing. But then it all got curiouser and curiouser: prosecutors asked for more time so that they could determine whether the documents Yee had were really classified at all. The charges were reduced, revised, and finally dropped altogether.

American Muslim advocacy groups and their allies have tried to make Yee’s case into a cause celebre, clamoring for an official apology and comparing Yee to Alfred Dreyfus, the Army Captain who was convicted of treason on charges trumped-up by anti-Semites in France a hundred years ago. Just last Saturday the Chicago Tribune huffed: “No apologies by the military would fully restore Yee’s reputation or compensate his family for the suffering they endured. Yet a formal apology would be a good place to start. The military ought to consider, too, how this witch hunt has damaged its image, its plans to recruit Muslims and Arabs into its intelligence services — an urgent task — and its reputation among Muslims at home and abroad.”

Maybe Yee hasn’t received an apology because of the unanswered questions that linger about his case. When the charges were dropped, Major General Geoffrey D. Miller, commander of Joint Task Force Guantanamo spoke cryptically of “national security concerns that would arise from the release of the evidence” if the government continued to prosecute Yee.

What on earth did Miller mean? That the documents Yee was carrying were so sensitive that a trial would bring to light information that must not come out? If that was so, then why was he sent back to work? But if he didn’t have classified documents, why not dispel all remaining suspicions and allow this innocent man to get on with his life without any clouds hanging over him?

The stakes are too high in the war on terror to allow for the kind of bungling that marked, or seemed to mark, the Yee case, and which now threatens to turn another high-profile terror prosecution into a fiasco. The problem is not that all this makes George Bush or John Ashcroft look bad. The problem is that there are plenty of real terrorists still at large. Whether Justice is trumping up charges against innocent people or mishandling the prosecution of real jihadists is equally damaging. There is today simply no margin for error.