Thursday, February 18, 2010

Man Flies Plane Into IRS Building In Austin

The New York Times is reporting that a man flew a small plane into the IRS building in Austin, Texas earlier today. One person is reported missing and two people were taken to the hospital. Based on internet postings the authorities believe it was an intentional act by a man named Joseph Stack.

No one is calling this an act of terrorism that I can tell, but it looks like one to me. There is no concrete definition of terrorism, but based on the various ones I've found it seems that it is defined as an ideologically motivated act of violence directed at a government or society. The suspect in this case laid out the problems he had with the IRS on the internet and said that the only answer was violence. In my book that makes this incident an ideologically motivated attack against a government agency and the people that work there. What if this guy were still alive and we could prosecute him? Would those people calling for military trials of the Christmas Day bomber and the 9/11 terrorists also say that the proper venue for a trial against the perpetrator of this crime is a military tribunal? Would the word terrorism even be mentioned in connection with this crime? It doesn't look like it has thus far. The NYT article doesn't mention it once (I think that would not be the case if the pilot's name was Mohammed instead of Joseph).

Let's take it one step farther. What if, instead of the act of one man, this was a conspiracy by a bunch of white men from Texas that wanted to strike at the U.S. government? We'd be looking at a situation that is less destructive, but very similar to the Oklahoma City bombing, which was a terrorist attack on American soil just like 9/11 and the Christmas Day attempt. Would we hold the guys that planned the Austin attack for days without an attorney to question them? Would we attempt to try them in a military tribunal? The answer is that we probably wouldn't and we definitely shouldn't. We didn't even consider doing that during Oklahoma City.

In this case it looks like the sole perpetrator is now dead, but I think it is important to ask whether or not, if the situation were different and more people were involved that could be tried, what our legal response would be. We successfully tried the Oklahoma City suspects in federal court. I think it likely that anyone charged in conspiring to attack the IRS building in Austin would be charged under a terrorism statute. I also think there is no question that they would be tried in a federal court just like many terrorism cases have been in the past but yet when it comes to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab people think we can opt out of the civilian justice system because they are "enemy soldiers" in the "War on Terror." We can't change our minds about how to approach these attacks just because we now say that we are "at war against terrorism." We've had a "War on Poverty" and a "War on Drugs", but we didn't take that as an opportunity to abandon the underpinnings of our legal system because it wasn't necessary then and it is not necessary now.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

U.S. Troops In Pakistan

The New York Times reports this morning that three American soldiers were killed and two were wounded in Pakistan. Their deaths were the result of a remotely detonated roadside bomb in a village near the Taliban-ridden Swat Valley. The military says that the soldiers were in the area training Pakistani paramilitary forces. The NYT says that the Pentagon has acknowledged that the U.S. military has sent advisers to Pakistan in a consulting role, but this article insinuates that this is the first time that U.S. soldiers were killed inside Pakistan while on a mission.

I think this article confirms what most people knew was a virtual certainty: that U.S. military forces are operating inside Pakistan. I also assume that these aren't the first U.S. military casualties inside Pakistan, but they are the first that we are hearing about. I think it highly likely that these soldiers were members of U.S. Army Special Forces who played, and continue to play, a major role in Afghanistan. The primary mission of Special Forces soldiers is what is called "foreign internal defense", which is essentially training groups of indigenous forces in a country to fight. This is a major component of the mission in Afghanistan as well as Iraq. Based on what the NYT article says these soldiers may have been a "training unit" attached to Pakistani paramilitary forces. That sounds like it is right up the Special Forces' alley.

I don't think that this incident is any kind of harbinger to escalated U.S. presence in Pakistan. There is virtually no chance we get heavily involved in Pakistan in the sense of having a military presence there. President Obama has made it clear that the goal is to get Afghanistan in some form of stability as quickly as possible and get out of there so that he can redirect that money towards fixing domestic issues. Since that is the goal I don't see any chance of us getting involved in Pakistan; however, this story does draw attention to a military presence in Pakistan that is usually downplayed.

Monday, February 1, 2010

9/11 Terrorists Won't Be Tried In Manhattan

I cheered when the federal government announced that it would try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the other 9/11 terrorists in civilian court in New York City. Yesterday the trials’ opponents won out and the administration decided to nix its plans to hold the trials in New York City. A New York Times article about the decision explained that the stepped-up security measures would cost over $1 billion and would essentially shut down a good portion of lower Manhattan. Even Mayor Bloomberg, initially a major proponent of the plan, withdrew his support.

The government is doing the right thing by ditching its plan. I believed that holding the trials in the city most affected by the attacks was going to be a great symbol of the resilience of NYC and the United States, as well as a symbol that we were repairing the rule of law that was damaged during the Bush administration. That symbol became less meaningful once it became clear that the trials would have serious adverse effects on the everyday lives New Yorkers, and could potentially put them in danger of another attack.

Although I agree with the decision to change the location of the trials, I also think that this is a setback for the administration. A quote in the New York Times article makes the point that the decision to move the trials is a propaganda dream for Al Qaeda. It’s a sign that AQ can make its presence felt years after 9/11 even in the absence of an actual attack.

In the end, the federal government has no one to blame for this but itself. Apparently Attorney General Holder did not contact anyone in NYC until just a few hours before the announcement that the trials would be there. There was no consultation with NYC authorities as to what security or logistical steps would be needed to facilitate the trials. Had there been preliminary discussions, the administration could have avoided what seems to be a significant setback in the President’s national security agenda. Now it seems like holding these types of high-profile terrorism trials in civilian courts is impossible, and that the solution to the problem is to try them in military courts.

The Washington Post reports that Senator Lindsey Graham is planning to introduce legislation that would indirectly force these trials into military tribunals. The administration cannot allow that to happen. Cancelling the NYC trials is a setback, but the answer to the problem cannot be a reversion to Bush administration policies of dealing with terrorism’s legal issues through the military. Federal courts have handled terrorism trials in the past, they are absolutely capable of handling these trials, and the place for these kinds of trials is in civilian court, not in military tribunals. The solution to this problem should be to move the trials to a federal court in a less populous location where effective security measures can be more cheaply and easily implemented, and where the effect on the local population would be significantly lower than if they were held in NYC or Washington, D.C.