Wednesday, May 01, 2002

Am I the only person who's disturbed at the bizarrely roundabout way in which the Benevolence International Foundation and its director were prosecuted? According to informants, Osama bin Laden used the group as a conduit for funds and information--including information on chemical and nuclear weapons--during the 1990s. But that wasn't enough for an indictment. It was, however, enough to allow the FBI to raid their offices and freeze their assets in December. And when the organization sued to recover its assets, it committed perjury by denying that it had aided terrorist groups.

Al Capone was famously convicted on income tax charges, of course; but that was because the feds couldn't pin anything else on him. Here, the problem is much more disturbing: the kind of assistance the organization was giving bin Laden apparently wasn't illegal at the time. (Otherwise, they'd have been indicted for it from the start.) Presumably the Patriot Act has fixed such loopholes, but obviously that statute can't be applied retroactively.

All of which raises a question I first posed back when John Walker Lindh was first captured: suppose that a known, Afghan-trained Al Qaida "sleeper" has been stationed in the US (perhaps even become a US citizen), but has not yet committed any terrorist acts. What, if anything, can the law do about him? If he were to receive his training today, I believe he would likely be a felon under the Patriot Act; but again, that law cannot be applied retroactively. It seems as though America may well end up paying for years to come for its past lack of statutorial vigilance with respect to the threat of foreign terrorist organizations.

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