Monday, June 13, 2005

Poor Copy Cats

If The Guardian is going to crib its stories from other media outlets, the least it can do is crib the whole thing. Today it gives us this report, headlined 90% of terror arrests fail. It is basically a replication of a Washington Post story from yesterday, only stripped of any context, background and balance, presumably so as to place Bush and his justice department in the most negative light possible.

The story is ostensibly about the lack of effective prosecutions against suspected terrorists and how the reality of those prosecutions does not match the rhetoric coming out of the Bush administration. But The Washington Post at least provides some analysis, and allows the justice department to defend both its use of the numbers, and to explain its view of them. For example, it allows counterterrorism chief Barry Sabin to explain that oftentimes suspects are ultimately prosecuted on lesser, immigration charges because either the prosecution is not confident of getting a conviction on more serious charges (and so they employ what is essentially the Al Capone tax evasion strategy) or because the defendant has provided useful information in exchange for a lesser charge. Perhaps this is just administration spin, but at least it gives the reader something to think about. Likewise, the Post gives the opinion of different “experts” each of whom have differing takes on the significance of the numbers.

The Guardian dispenses with all of this, well, reporting, and presents the Post story in the most simplistic and non-contextual terms. As a result, its readers are cheated out of what was actually an interesting story. (I have some questions about the Post story as well, but it was largely even-handed and objective.)

Of course, never one to pass up an opportunity to mount the Guantanamo hobby horse, The Guardian finds it necessary to insert this non-sequitur into what is otherwise a story about domestic arrests and prosecutions:
The administration's list does not include those held at Guantánamo Bay or under US jurisdiction elsewhere in the world.
I do wish they could make up their minds about Guantanamo. Do they think the people held there are prisoners of war entitled to the protections of the Geneva Convention, or are they domestic criminals against whom criminal charges are in order?


Anonymous Mark Miller said...

Heard about the 90% figure just the other day on under the title "Patriot Act To Be Strengthened: ACLU Snivel, Whine". The ACLU released a statement opposing the renewal of the Patriot Act. They also oversimplified what the figures meant. They didn't use the term "failed", but rather suggested that the federal government was overzealous in terrorism prosecutions, saying that most suspects brought in on terrorism charges had the terrorism charges dropped, and most did not even serve jail time.

IMO, this is not entirely bad. It shows that our justice system is working and not being "taken over", as the scare mongers are constantly trying to say with the judicial nominations. The ACLU points out that a lot of the prosecutions are not due to the Patriot Act alone, but rather to anti-terrorism laws passed before it, which is an interesting addition to their argument. It makes the Patriot Act seem less significant, and needless, because, "Look. 90% of their terrorism charges are dropped anyway. Seems like they don't need the extra powers." I'm not buying it.

The most famous case of late where a raft of charges were brought against someone by federal prosecutors, and most of them got dropped, was Martha Stewart. Multiple charges were brought against her, including insider trading, but all they got her on was lying to an FBI agent. And a few analysts said that it was an "Al Capone" prosecution. There wasn't enough evidence to convict on insider trading, but there was enough there to suspect that she did do something fishy. The only really convincing evidence though was the lying, according to the jury.

The "saving grace" of the Patriot Act is it enables federal agents to act against someone they suspect is involved in a terrorist plot, due to intelligence information, or tips, and enables them to act without needing the normal standards of evidence of probable cause. This makes civil libertarians' skin crawl, and not totally without reason, but what 9/11 showed is the principle of "it's best to let 100 guilty men go free, rather than convict 1 innocent man" is not good enough when it comes to terrorism/asymmetric warfare.

8:39 PM  

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