Once again, federal authorities suggest that they’ve foiled a significant terror plot, this one possibly aimed at American innocents riding buses and trains. Two Colorado men and a New Yorker have been charged. On Thursday the U.S. Department of Justice disclosed the indictment of Denver airport shuttle driver Najibullah Zazi in a conspiracy to detonate bombs somewhere in the United States. Authorities are pursuing more suspects in this country, Pakistan and possibly elsewhere, and haven’t divulged all of their evidence.
And, once again, the rest of us are left to wonder how worried we should be. Was this alleged plot genuine — or are the feds so afraid to repeat mistakes of yesteryear that they inflate or imagine terror schemes not worthy of the attention?
Years may pass before we know the answer. Back in June 2006, when federal agents in Florida rolled up seven alleged attackers bent on bombing Chicago’s Sears (now Willis) Tower, we similarly wondered: Are these guys terrorists in waiting? Or are they boastful mopes who couldn’t find the skyscraper if they were standing in its lobby?
That verdict came May 12 of this year when, after two earlier mistrials, jurors in Miami convicted five of the men of trying to join with al-Qaeda in plots to topple not only the tower but government buildings in South Florida. Defense attorneys had ample opportunity to discredit the federal prosecutors’ case against the men as vastly overblown — hey, the defendants hadn’t bombed anything. As the deputy director of the FBI said in 2006, “This group was more aspirational than operational.” But as the jurors’ verdict acknowledged, that characterization doesn’t equate with “probably harmless.”
In Illinois on Thursday came the chilling word that, a day earlier, a Decatur man allegedly parked a truck he thought was filled with massive explosives in front of the Paul Findley Federal Building in Springfield, walked away and attempted to detonate the “bomb” by remote control. Authorities said he aspired to blow up the building but ran into a federal sting operation. He was given fake explosives and was arrested when he tried to carry out the plot.
Think back to the morning of April 17, 1995, when a grudge-holding Timothy McVeigh rented a yellow Ryder truck in Junction City, Kan. On April 18, he and cohort Terry Nichols loaded a bomb of ammonium nitrate, fuel oil and other explosives. On the morning of April 19, McVeigh parked the truck alongside the massive Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
This nation may never perfectly balance the aggressive gathering of intelligence about terrorism with the aggressive protection of civil liberties. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, many voices blamed the U.S. intel community with minimizing the threat from al-Qaeda. Then, during the Iraq War, many voices blamed the intel agencies for exaggerating the reach of Saddam Hussein’s illicit weapons programs.
But of all the words written by the 9/11 commission in assessing the failures that preceded those attacks, the three most piercing were, “failure of imagination.” The 10 commissioners said public officials in the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush missed at least nine potential opportunities to thwart al-Qaeda’s plot.
After that and other post-Sept. 11 reports, members of Congress vowed that U.S. pursuit of terror planners would be more imaginative and decisive. That is the context in which subsequent federal efforts — the leveling of charges against these three suspects included — now occur. (In addition to Zazi, his father and another man have been accused of lying to investigators.)
But those efforts don’t give us answers to three questions they raise: How menacing was the alleged threat posed by these defendants or their associates? What was the involvement of the secret federal court that oversees electronic spying operations in accordance with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act? And why, exactly, did federal officials punctuate this still unfolding case with bulletins urging police departments nationwide to be vigilant for terror threats in crowded public places?
By their nature, terror plots — like submarines — run silent, run deep. Some are just talk. When should we and our intel agencies take them seriously? Not when they succeed; that obviously is too late.
The emerging bright-line test of the last several years makes good sense: It’s reasonable to arrest terror suspects the moment they allegedly break any of our laws — lying to investigators included. Charges such as those against the current suspects don’t deprive them of chances to prove themselves fully innocent in court. Those charges do, though, conceivably hold the power to intercept plots before they take large numbers of lives. And that protection has to be our most urgent priority.
The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, opened a July report titled “Terrorist Watch” with this passage: “Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, 23 terrorist plots against the United States have been foiled. ... These successes demonstrate that individuals and terrorist groups are still seeking to do Americans harm and that the U.S. needs to continue fighting terrorism. Continuing the fight will require an ongoing commitment from the White House, Congress and American citizens.” The report’s detailed roster of those 23 cases suggests that intel and law enforcement agencies truly have tried to balance national security with civil liberties; several of the cases proved to be more serious than they initially appeared.
That background tells us nothing about the current case. It should, though, remind us every day that we never want to break our admirable string of plots foiled.