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October 6, 2006
Missing The Low-Hanging Fruit

In all of the heat surrounding the NSA warrantless surveillance program and SWIFT banking intelligence, we seem to have lost track of the uncontroversial communication taps allowed by law. The Washington Post reminds us in an editorial that we have no bar to reviewing prisoner communications, and yet the imprisoned terrorists already in our custody have little problem sending mail to their jihadist friends unmolested:

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. ...

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.

As the Post points out later in the editorial, we rightly prosecuted and jailed Lynne Stewart for doing much the same thing described by the editorial. We know, therefore, that these jihadists have directed terrorist operations from their American prison cells. That should place a high priority on reviewing their communications, but apparently no one has bothered to put the necessary resources in place to do it effectively.

That has to change. We have even more terrorists in our custody now, high-ranking members of jihadist organizations, and eventually they will spend the rest of their lives in a military prison. Their communications have to come under scrutiny, not to confirm their danger but to keep them from abetting new conspiracies. The first impulse would be to deny them all communication privileges, but doing so might destroy a potentially valuable line of intelligence for the US in identifying and tracking terrorist activities abroad.

Congress and the White House has to put more resources into developing the translators needed to keep an eye on these communications. In this case, we know exactly who and where the terrorists are, and ignoring their efforts to continue the jihad is foolish indeed.

Here is the text from Fine's report (page 2-3 of the PDF):


We found that the BOP has not effectively monitored the mail of terrorist and other high-risk inmates. Our review determined that the BOP’s monitoring of inmate mail is deficient in several respects: The BOP does not read all the mail for terrorist and other high-risk inmates on its mail monitoring lists, does not have enough proficient translators to translate inmate mail written in foreign languages, and does not have sufficient staff trained in intelligence techniques to evaluate whether terrorists’ communications contain suspicious content. Similarly, we found that the BOP is unable to effectively monitor high-risk inmates’ verbal communications, which include telephone calls, visits with family and friends, and cellblock conversations. In addition, the Department does not require a review of all international terrorist inmates to identify those who should be subjected to Special Administrative Measures (SAMs), the most restrictive conditions that can be placed on an inmate’s communications.

During interviews with the OIG, BOP managers acknowledged the BOP’s responsibility to vigilantly monitor inmate communications. They stated that after the ADX Florence incident, the BOP initiated several corrective actions and plans to initiate others to improve its monitoring of international terrorist communications. For example, the BOP hired full-time staff to translate Arabic communications, started upgrading its intelligence analysis capabilities, and developed policies to limit high-risk inmates’ mail and telephone calls.

However, the Director and BOP managers stated that the BOP cannot fully implement the planned initiatives because of budget constraints and an increasing inmate population. Consequently, the threat remains that terrorist and other high-risk inmates can use mail and verbal communications to conduct terrorist or criminal activities while incarcerated.

This truly is the low-hanging fruit of terrorist communications, and we're missing it.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at October 6, 2006 6:36 AM

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