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Published: Sunday, 8/22/2004

Kennedy s travails underscore security flaws

WASHINGTON Ted Kennedy was trying to get on a plane in Washington to go home to Boston. He was denied a seat by an airline agent who refused to say why the senator, who had been flying to and from Boston nearly every week for 42 years, could not board.

Mr. Kennedy, one of the nation s most recognizable politicians and a Massachusetts senator since 1962, went to the agent s supervisor, who eventually, reluctantly, let him fly. At the airport in Boston, Mr. Kennedy ran into the same situation when trying to return to Washington. Over several weeks, he ran into the same difficulty three more times.

Finally, Tom Ridge, the allegedly powerful head of the massive new Department of Homeland Security, called the 72-year-old lawmaker to apologize and vowed it wouldn t happen again.

It happened again.

It turned out that Mr. Kennedy was on the Transportation Security Administration s watch list of suspicious people who might be linked to terrorism.

Mr. Kennedy, relating the story to his colleagues and members of the bipartisan 9/11 Commission this past week, asked, How in the world are average Americans going to be treated if they get on that list?

There were some jokes about Irish terrorist and Republican vengeance against a liberal icon, but nobody had an acceptable answer.

It s been a tough week for the federal government, trying to fend off charges that it is too focused on the peripheral and not doing a good enough job on the core of what really matters in the war on terrorism.

According to the Associated Press, federal prosecutors this past week acknowledged a possible translation error in a key piece of evidence used to arrest and detain a mosque leader accused of supporting terrorism.

Yassin M. Aref, an imam in Albany, N.Y., was indicted in a sting operation in which a federal agent tried to sell Aref a shoulder-fired missile. It turned out that a word in an Arabic notebook used to indict Aref was not commander, but brother. The man faces up to 70 years in prison if convicted.

Then the New York Times reported on Abdullah al Kidd, an American citizen who played basketball at the University of Idaho and was a doctoral student in Islamic studies. He was handcuffed and arrested in March, 2003, at Dulles International Airport near Washington on suspicion of knowing a suspected terrorist. He said he sat naked in isolation for hours, imprisoned, and eventually forced to live in a small apartment with his in-laws instead of returning to school. The legal justification for holding him was the federal material-witness law. A few weeks ago, having never been charged with a crime or called as a witness in any case, he was released.

Meanwhile, he s lost his scholarship and his wife and his daughter and his reputation.

This should make the blood of every American boil. It is as frightening as the arrest of any innocent citizen in any of the world s worst dictatorships. But it happened a few miles from the U.S. Capitol, the White House, the Pentagon, and the Justice Department, which condoned it. About 60 other Americans have been held under the material-witness law since 9/11.

The Senate, probing the 9/11 commissioners on their recommendations to set up a new post of intelligence czar, got a first-rate answer on what to do about terrorism from Lee Hamilton, the commission s vice chairman, a few days ago.

He said the Patriot Act, which may be used to restrict civil liberties, needs a thorough national discussion. But more important than new organizational charts and more bureaucracy, he said, this country needs to convince Muslims around the world that the United States is on their side.

Stretching from North Africa to Indonesia, you have millions and billions of people who, if polls are correct, don t think very highly of us, Hamilton said. They may be sympathetic to Osama bin Laden without endorsing his forms of violence, he said. But there is nothing in the lives of millions of young Muslims to give them any hope.

What does Osama bin Laden offer these people? Death. We have a lot to offer. For example, increased scholarships. There are a lot of things we can do that are symbolic but important. We re not going to solve this problem in my lifetime. But we have to get started on it.

Mr. Kennedy and every other senator in the room nodded in agreement. As they left the room, Mr. Kennedy took with him his heavy, dusty book of study commissions esteemed com missions, he warned, whose re commen dations ultimately went nowhere.



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