Alleged skyscraper plot highlights problems of keeping tabs on immigrants
By Todd J. Gillman
The Dallas Morning News, September 27, 2009
Washington, DC — The tension between security and civil liberties, between surveillance and privacy, has simmered for eight years. The plot exposed last week in Dallas by the FBI a Jordanian teenager allegedly hoping to level a skyscraper provides the latest fuel.
Initially, the disturbing image of Hosam Maher Husein Smadi allegedly trying to leave a scar in Dallas' skyline vindicates the post-Sept. 11 push for a more robust national security apparatus, particularly with FBI officials exposing plots to attack targets in New York and Illinois on the same day they arrested Smadi.
'It's going to give the Cheney crowd some bragging rights,' said one liberal-leaning national security expert, Steven Clemons of the New America Foundation, referring to former Vice President Dick Cheney.
For all the early rhetoric about reversing Bush-era policies, the Obama administration has embraced many post-Sept. 11 techniques. The latest rash of allegations of jihad-inspired schemes can only reinforce that trend, national security and legal scholars say.
Obama ended abusive interrogations. But he angered his liberal base by refusing to walk away from other policies, including the placing of wiretaps on foreign suspects without warrants.
'Obama came into office at a point where people thought the Bush administration had gone too far on the curtailment of civil liberties and had basically created a national security state,' Clemons said, but support for a more robust approach persists.
'There's no doubt that during a high-fear time, American citizens become more gripped up and become more in favor of these really intrusive measures.'
The White House is struggling with one issue in particular: the prison at Guantnamo Bay, Cuba.
During the campaign and into the early days of his presidency, Obama vowed to close it. But last week, aides conceded that a January deadline can't be met. And Obama now wants to keep 50 or 60 detainees indefinitely. Such a policy can't be what Obama voters expected.
And the administration has largely brushed off pressure from civil libertarians to overhaul the Patriot Act, the post-Sept. 11 law that created broad new investigative powers. Obama wants Congress to renew certain provisions that were set to expire later this year.
Among those: authority to conduct 'roving' wiretaps that follow a suspect and not just a specific phone or computer and to dig through business, medical and library records without a court-issued subpoena, by issuing a so-called National Security Letter. The Justice Department's inspector general has documented numerous instances in which use of the tactic hasn't been properly disclosed. Critics say that shows the tool is ripe for abuse.
The debate in coming months will be contentious.
Matt Mayer, a top aide in the Bush Homeland Security Department now with the conservative Heritage Foundation, said he's concerned that it takes a rash of foiled attacks against Dallas and other cities to keep America vigilant.
'We risk putting our guard down to a pre-9/11 mentality,' he said. 'The pendulum always swings in this civil liberties-and-security debate. After an attack, the pendulum naturally swings toward security. The question always is how far back it goes.'
Many questions remain about Smadi, especially regarding his immigration status. The FBI says Smadi was in the country illegally, though details remain fuzzy.
That revelation has prompted anger over immigration policies. Members of Congress expressed dismay, and if Washington manages to turn from health care to immigration any time soon, the case will shape that conversation.
'Hopefully his arrest will reignite the debate for real illegal-immigration reform, especially cracking down on those who overstay their welcome,' said U.S. Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Plano.
Smadi's father, an engineer in Aljoun, Jordan, told reporters his son and a younger brother, Hussein, 18, went to the U.S. on legitimate student visas in 2007 after their mother died of cancer.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials won't disclose any details from the files. ICE agents detained Smadi's brother Thursday in California, and placed him in a federal detention center in San Jose.
Smadi had a U.S. alien registration number, which supports his father's assertion that he arrived legally. Schools are required to report the comings and goings of foreign students to an immigration-agency database called the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System.
Did he ever enroll in school? Was there ever a red flag in his file and if so, did ICE follow up? The FBI says it identified Smadi as a suspect by monitoring extremist Web sites, not through an immigration-related inquiry.
Lawmakers are likely to demand answers.
'This is one that seems to have fallen through the cracks,' said Susan Ginsburg, director of the mobility and security program at the Migration Policy Institute, who was senior counsel to the federal commission that investigated the 9/11 attacks and an adviser to the Homeland Security Department.
Roughly 40 percent of those classified as illegal immigrants arrived on a tourist or student visa, or with other permission. The Government Accountability Office has highlighted the Department of Homeland Security's struggle to confirm whether visitors leave on time.
'The system, under normal circumstances, is not set up to identify overstays,' said U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, the Mississippi Democrat who leads the House Homeland Security Committee. 'Given this obvious vulnerability, you will see it getting some additional attention from Congress.'
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes, D-El Paso, said the Smadi case shows the urgent need for a comprehensive overhaul of immigration policy that includes improved monitoring of foreigners who could pose a threat.
'We are not always fortunate enough to have controlled investigations like this one,' he said. 'As long as we have nine or 12 million people creating a shadow world within our country, it makes it that much more difficult for our law enforcement people to focus on the bad guys.'
The FBI portrays Smadi as a lone wolf an al-Qaeda wannabe with no apparent training or connection to any terrorist network, eager to produce mass casualties but lacking the skills.
For investigators, that's a mixed bag. The smaller the conspiracy, the less chance for slips. Authorities sift through credit card transactions, money transfers, e-mails and phone records, hoping to detect and disrupt a plot.
Plots targeting military bases and train stations from Georgia to the Bronx have been disrupted in recent years, as the FBI shifted from a post-incident response (gather intelligence, track down bad guys after an attack) to a proactive response (identify potential bad guys, infiltrate and disrupt).
'As much as people want to think they're out there snooping on everybody, they're not,' said Janice Kephart, another 9/11 commission counsel and now director of national security policy at the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates tougher enforcement. 'They've found the balance they didn't have before. … We wouldn't have seen these types of arrests prior to 9/11.'
Texas bomb plot suspect appears in court
By Anabelle Garay
The Associated Press, September 25, 2009
Dallas (AP) — A 19-year-old Jordanian national accused of plotting to blow up a Dallas skyscraper has made his first court appearance.
Hosam Maher Husein Smadi mostly looked down as he was led into the courtroom in handcuffs Friday. Smadi was arrested Thursday after officials said he placed what he believed to be a car bomb in a parking garage beneath a 60-story tower.
Asked whether he understood his rights, Smadi softly answered, 'Yes.' Smadi waived his right to an immigration hearing and will remain in jail. He is charged with trying to detonate a weapon of mass destruction and face up to life in prison if convicted.
He was appointed a public attorney and an Arabic translator, and a probable cause hearing was set for Oct. 5.