Former FBI agent Mike German recently told a pack of Boise civil libertarians that the government does not have to fight terrorism by stepping on Americans’ Constitutional rights. This is at least a six-year-old cliche by now. But German spoke very clearly about the difference between combatting terrorism — once defined as a war crime without a war — and stamping on ideology.
German, who left the FBI in 2004 and about a year ago went to work for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the War on Terror could have been executed as good, old-fashioned police work: Find people doing criminal activity, follow them, gather evidence and bust them.
German said that many people want to focus on the ideology. But his experience at the FBI taught him that at the operations level — where criminal activity is actually taking place — ideology is irrelevant.
As an FBI agent, German infiltrated white supremacist groups, identified the people with the bombs and arrested them. German said he didn’t care who gave them money or who thought they were cool. He was interested in the criminals among them, not the ideologues.
And that is what led him to the ACLU, a group that has defended racists’ right to march. But not to shoot people.
Or, in a soundbyte: “We do not gain anything by giving up our liberties and in fact we decrease our security by doing so.”
But the FBI and America’s security establishment, in the days, weeks and years following 9/11 went after ideology, shutting down Muslim charities, chasing funders and religious schools around the world… attacking Muslim countries. Going after the people providing “material support” for terrorism — people who German argues want nothing to do with violence.
“They’re still bought into the legal system – we’re attacking the wrong side,” he said.
German said he tried to counsel people within the FBI against waging an ideological battle, but was not successful. So he quit and went to Capitol Hill with his concerns.
German makes the point that the American colonists (founding fathers) staged their own asymmetric war against England and went into their Constitution writing with that war fresh on the brain. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights were designed specifically to undermine terrorism: We can think whatever we like, associate with whomever we like, and the government will tolerate it until actual criminal activity ensues.
So why not use the Constitution to fight terrorism instead of trying to carve out emergency exceptions in desperate times.
While German makes a strong case that the government’s War on Terror has been largely unsuccessful, he feels that the American public still knows what the Constitution is about: the vast number of juries in terrorism trials in the last six years have been able to differentiate between crime and thought crime, handing a paltry number of convictions to the government.