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Inverse False Alarms

Law enforcement's premature dismissal of terrorism as a motivating factor is puzzling--and harmful.

12:00 AM, Mar 12, 2008 • By DAVEED GARTENSTEIN-ROSS and KYLE DABRUZZI
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THE FBI'S NATIONAL SPOKESMAN was already prepared to dismiss a connection to terrorism the day after ricin was found in a Las Vegas hotel room. Special Agent Richard Kolko told the press on Feb. 29 that the presence of ricin appeared unrelated to terrorism "based on the information gathered so far." He made this announcement before any details about the incident hit the press--and when they did, it made the announcement seem premature, to say the least.

The following day, Las Vegas police revealed that they had discovered "general firearms" and an "anarchist-type textbook" with an entry on ricin marked two days before they found the ricin itself. Ricin has two basic uses: poisoning people and cancer research. Anarchist texts such as the infamous The Anarchist Cookbook couple instructions on building a variety of weapons with the advocacy of violence to bring about political change--which fits the classic definition of terrorism. No anarchist texts are known to contain instructions on how to conduct cancer research.

There is no question that a competent investigator presented with this set of facts would entertain the hypothesis that the ricin had been developed with an eye toward political violence. Yet according to CNN, even after those background facts became public, an internal law enforcement report stated that the FBI considered the ricin discovery "criminal in nature with no nexus to terrorism." There is little reason to think that the FBI knows something we do not on this issue. Even as the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department's conclusion about the lack of a terrorist link was being circulated by the media, deputy chief Kathy Suey admitted that law enforcement didn't "know an awful lot" about the 57-year-old man who wound up in critical condition after staying in the room where the ricin was found. "For the last 12 hours," she said, "our efforts have been on the containment and cleanup of the area and areas where there could have been exposure. We are now going forward with an investigation."

IT IS, OF COURSE, too early to declare that the Las Vegas incident was connected to terrorism. But law enforcement's announcement to the contrary was almost certainly premature--and is part of a larger pattern of officials dismissing acts of violence as unrelated to terrorism long before they are in a position to know.

The U.S. Code defines domestic terrorism as acts that endanger human life in violation of American criminal law, and that appear to be intended "to intimidate or coerce a civilian population" or "to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion." So the defining factor that would classify an instance of violence as terrorism is the motivation behind it: A violent act is terrorism if its perpetrator intends it to intimidate American citizens or alter U.S. policies.

With that definition in mind, the pattern of law enforcement declaring violent incidents to be unrelated to terrorism before they have any way of knowing becomes clear.

THE PREEMINENT EXAMPLE of a premature announcement that a violent incident was unrelated to terrorism is also one of the few times that the FBI changed its tune. On July 4, 2002, Hesham Mohamed Hadayet opened fire at the Los Angeles International Airport's El Al ticket counter, killing two Israelis and wounding four other people before a security guard shot him dead. Two days later, FBI spokesman Matt McLaughlin told the press that "there's nothing to indicate terrorism at this point," and added that "we'd have to find some connections to a terrorist group" before doing so.

McLaughlin's reasoning was dead wrong: Connections to international terrorist groups are not a prerequisite for an act to be defined as terrorism. A report by federal investigators who thoroughly explored the Hadayet case revealed no links to international terrorist groups--but characterized the shooting as a terrorist act because Hadayet had virulent anti-Israel views and apparently hoped to influence U.S. policy toward the country. Though it took almost a year for the FBI's stance on the case to change, in April 2003 a Bureau spokesman said they agreed with the report's conclusion that the shooting fit "the definition of terrorism."

SIMILAR EXAMPLES ABOUND. We outline them here not to argue that all of these incidents should be characterized as terrorism. Rather, our point is that in these cases, officials quickly declared that the violent incidents were not terrorism--at a time when no significant investigation had been performed, and when these announcements could not possibly be regarded as credible.