On June 10, during the same week that John Ashcroft was busy in D.C. declaring to Congress that the president was above the law, a jury in Idaho did its best to rein in the excesses of the Patriot Act.
The case in question was that of Sami Omar Al-Hussayen, a University of Idaho graduate student and Saudi Arabia national accused of terrorism under the Patriot Act. In February 2003, an FBI SWAT team descended on the sleepy college town of Moscow, Idaho, raiding Al-Hussayen's home and hauling him off to prison. Al-Hussayen was charged with three counts of terrorism, four counts of making false statements, and seven counts of visa fraud.
Al-Hussayen, the son of a former Saudi education minister, was a Ph.D. candidate who had studied in the U.S. for nine years. A husband and father, he hardly fit the profile of a terrorist, and the town rallied behind him—particularly when the details of his case emerged. He had volunteered his time to a Michigan-based group, the Islamic Assembly of North America, to set up a Web site that promoted the study of Islam. The Web site contained a link to another site set up by a group the U.S. government had listed as a terrorist organization. Another link pointed to a site that, among a huge volume of postings, contained four short documents written by radical clerics discussing the war in Chechnya and the Palestinian conflict. One of these documents sanctioned suicide attacks and mentioned flying airplanes into buildings.
That was it. Al-Hussayen was charged as a tertiary "terrorist"—giving help to a group whose Web site linked to a group that published, among its library of documents, writings that advocated terror. Al-Hussayen's case did not even amount to an assault on freedom of speech, because he hadn't been the one speaking; indeed, he didn't even know the links and documents were on the site. The visa violations and false-statement charges against him involved his work with a nonprofit; his visa lists him as a student, and the government claimed that a student visa did not allow volunteer "work."
Al-Hussayen's case was a major test of a provision in the USA Patriot Act that targets so-called "secondary players" in the war on terrorism—those who give aid to groups or individuals who later carry out terrorist attacks. Even under such provisions, the case against Al-Hussayen was tenuous. It didn't matter. He spent nearly a year and a half in jail before being acquitted by the federal jury this month on all three terrorism counts against him. The case against him was so thin that his lawyers called only one witness, former CIA Near East division chief Frank Anderson, who testified about terrorist recruitment methods and questioned the FBI's notion that people give up their jobs and family connections to go join a jihad after reading a few postings on the Internet.
After Al-Hussayen's acquittal, Anderson said, "I take satisfaction in the verdict. But I am embarrassed and ashamed that our government has kept a decent and innocent man in jail for a very long time."
A major test case of the Patriot Act was rebuffed, but the government accomplished what it wanted: destroying a life as an example to other foreign nationals in the U.S. Al-Hussayen's wife and children have been deported, his studies interrupted, and his liberty and sense of personal security taken away from him.
In all likelihood, Al-Hussayen will return to Saudi Arabia to join his wife and children and rebuild his life. And in all likelihood, John Ashcroft's men will prosecute more Patriot Act cases with little or no substance in the future, secure in the knowledge that, just as they consider their commander in chief to be above the law, the law can be used to harass innocent people, and nothing will be lost.
Nothing, that is, except our tax dollars, a few innocent lives, and the notion of liberty that we're supposedly defending in our War on Terror. A jury struck down a Patriot Act prosecution, resoundingly, but the government won anyway. The king is dead. Long live the king.