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Department of Headless Chickens

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This weekend brings word of a significant terrorist plot which targeted the delivery of aviation fuel to JFK. It was hyped in a completely shameless fashion by media airheads (Josh Marshall has a rundown of some of the most vapid and irresponsible pieces reporting the story). The initial account of the arrests presented by the U.S. Attorney in Brooklyn, Roslynn R. Mauskopf, invited much of this. According to the New York Times, Mauskopf stated:

“Had the plot been carried out, it could have resulted in unfathomable damage, deaths and destruction… The devastation that would be caused had this plot succeeded are just unthinkable.”

But those who know just a little bit about pipelines were very quick to throw cold water on the latest mushroom-cloud scenarios – it starts with the fact that pipelines are filed with product, not oxygen or oxygenated gases which can lead to tremendous explosions. For instance, an MSNBC piece up on Sunday:

Richard Kuprewicz, a pipeline expert and president of Accufacts Inc., an energy consulting firm that focuses on pipelines and tank farms, said the force of explosion would depend on the amount of fuel under pressure, but it would not travel up and down the line.

Later reports have made clear that the “plot” was in early stages, if that, and that the principal mover was a man who ran a business exporting air conditioners to Guyana with a reputation for outlandish claims. All this information is still fragmentary, but it doesn’t stack up with the claims that Mauskopf made or the initial reporting of the more hysteria-prone media.

Almost from the outset of the so-called war on terror, senior officers of the Department of Justice have been quick to make breathless, dramatic announcements of the apprehension of “terrorists” involved in vile plots. I still remember the dramatic announcement that John Ashcroft made on June 10, 2002 – in Moscow – of the capture of Jose Padilla. (In fact I was in Moscow that day and watched Ashcroft speak; I was foolish enough at the time to believe every word he uttered.) Most of the claims he made then failed to pan out, and the fact of Ashcroft’s press conference seems clearly to have driven a prosecution that leveler heads would have abandoned. The same is true of the Liberty City arrests in Florida, and a number of other prosecutions around the country. In each case, the acts of the Justice Department officials appear with more distance to be little short of fear-mongering with clear-cut partisan political overtones. Indeed, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge at one point openly acknowledged that alerts and announcements of the apprehension of terror suspects were playing a political agenda that he considered short-sighted.

The point here is not that there is no terrorist threat, or that risks are somehow imaginary. We clearly live in an environment in which the risk is growing with each passing month. The point is that public officials who attempt to exploit public fears for political purposes are undermining the integrity and authority of their office. And for the Department of Justice in particular, integrity is already in shockingly short supply.

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