Blowing the Easy Ones

Friday, October 6, 2006

THE BUSH administration has pushed aggressively for expanded surveillance powers, military commissions and rough interrogation techniques. When it comes to fighting the war on terrorism, just about anything goes. Except, that is, those routine steps with no civil liberties implications at all that might significantly interrupt terrorism -- such as, say, reading the mail of convicted terrorists housed in American prisons. The federal Bureau of Prisons, Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine wrote, "does not read all the mail for terrorist and other high-risk inmates on its mail monitoring lists." It is also "unable to effectively monitor high-risk inmates' verbal communications," including phone calls. So while the administration won't reveal the circumstances under which it spies on innocent Americans, the communications of imprisoned terrorists, at least, appear sadly secure.

This is not a hypothetical problem. Jailed terrorists and organized-crime figures try to communicate with confederates outside of prison walls. Three inmates involved in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, while housed at the federal government's highest-security prison, managed to exchange around 90 letters with Islamist extremists between 2002 and 2004, including with terrorists in Spain who were planning attacks there. Just last month, federal prosecutors accused a drug lord at the same facility of running a huge distribution network in Los Angeles using coded conversations and messages. Imprisoned people can direct major crimes from behind bars.

Yet somehow, the bureau leaves unread a lot of mail to and from inmates it designates as warranting monitoring. What's more, at some federal institutions, the amount of mail monitored is going down . Part of the problem is that the bureau "does not have enough proficient translators to translate inmate mail written in foreign languages" -- a government-wide deficiency. Even when officers eyeball mail, they are not sufficiently "trained in intelligence techniques to evaluate whether terrorists' communications contain suspicious content," the report said.

This should be the easy part of fighting terrorism. It is simply a question of devoting adequate resources to making happen something that everyone agrees needs to happen. When a lawyer for the imprisoned Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman helped him covertly send messages to his followers, federal prosecutors rightly pressed charges and won a conviction against her. How ironic that other terrorists need only set pen to paper and their exhortations can slip through unread.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company