A Review: Willful Blindness

Why is it that very few dare question it when we kill a terrorist, but we are pilloried by every liberal pol and media outlet when we imprison one? More than six years after the 9/11 attacks, the op-ed pages of the mainstream media are still filled with indignant demands to shut down Guantanamo Bay, abolish military tribunals, and try terrorism suspects through the criminal justice system.
In “Willful Blindness,” Andrew McCarthy offers a welcome counterpoint to the emotional caterwauling over the treatment of captured Islamic jihadists who’ve dedicated their lives to destroying the United States.

McCarthy is a former prosecutor who secured the convictions of numerous jihadists responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, including the infamous “Blind Sheikh,” Omar Abdel Rahman. Based largely on this experience, McCarthy’s new book explains why the procedures of the criminal justice system are inadequate in trying terrorism suspects.

McCarthy notes that criminal prosecution was the primary response to terrorism during the eight years between the original bombing of the World Trade Center and its ultimate destruction on September 11. During that time, when jihadists attacked the U.S.S. Cole, the African embassies, and other U.S. targets abroad while they simultaneously expanded their networks within America’s borders, criminal prosecutions secured the convictions of less than three dozen terrorists. Even this miniscule achievement came at a significant price, as terrorism trials force the government to disclose vital intelligence that is often extremely useful to terrorists still on the loose. For example, the list of around 200 unindicted co-conspirators disclosed to the defense during the Rahman trial found its way to Osama bin Laden, whose name appeared on the list. The document would have been a valuable tool for helping bin Laden to figure out government surveillance methods. 

Having prosecuted one of the highest-profile terrorism cases in U.S. history, McCarthy writes with authority and makes a convincing case for keeping terrorists out of the criminal justice system. However, his overall argument, solid though it is, will likely exert less of a visceral reaction from readers than the many specific instances he recounts of official bungling of the Rahman case.

The missteps began with the prosecution of Sayyid Nosair, an Islamic fanatic who assassinated Jewish militant Meir Kahane in New York City in 1990. Despite plenty of evidence indicating that Nosair was part of a wider jihadist cell, authorities rushed to pronounce him a lone gunman and prosecuted him as such. They failed to connect him with the Blind Sheikh, largely because they never got around to analyzing dozens of boxes of evidence seized from Nosair’s home, including records of conversations between him and Rahman. After Nosair was convicted, under the authorities’ very noses, he continued running his jihadist group from jail. Nosair’s acolytes would regularly drive to Attica prison and consult with him about future attacks, including the bombing of the World Trade Center.

Furthermore, many of the key players in the bombing should never have been allowed into America. Rahman was already a well-known international jihadist when his applications for U.S. visas, which were vetted by the CIA, were approved. Similarly, Ramzi Yousef, who would become a key figure in the bombing plot, was allowed to enter America after disembarking at JFK airport with an Iraqi passport and no visa. The fact that his traveling companion was denied entry after presenting a forged passport and having bomb-making manuals discovered in his luggage apparently did not raise the authorities’ suspicions about Yousef. Another jihadist, Ali Mohamed, was known to the CIA as a terrorist sympathizer, and yet was allowed to come to America, gain citizenship, and even serve in the US Army.

But perhaps the most critical mistake was the FBI’s decision to cut loose an informer, Emad Salem, who had penetrated the Blind Sheikh’s terrorist cell. Despite the informant’s urgent reports on the group’s intentions to carry out bombings and other violent acts, after a minor spat the FBI peevishly terminated his service — a few months before the cell he had infiltrated bombed the World Trade Center.

As McCarthy remarks about the government’s approval of Rahman’s entry to America, such incidents are not sinister. “It is, instead, a story of inefficiency, political correctness, and incompetence. Why that should make anyone feel better, I don’t know.”

The inescapable impression one gets reading McCarthy’s account is that the 1993 World Trade Center attack was, indeed, preventable, if the FBI, CIA, immigration authorities, or anyone else in government had done their jobs properly. It’s an infuriating lesson in the CYA culture found in most big bureaucracies — and the security services, apparently, are no exception.