Seeing its first post-9/11 terrorism case collapse had to be horribly embarrassing to the Justice Department, but to its credit the department took the right and honorable course.
On Tuesday, the department agreed that terror charges against two Arab immigrants, once said by Attorney General John Ashcroft to be members of an al-Qaida sleeper cell, should be thrown out, their convictions vacated. The two will receive a new trial on lesser charges of document fraud, a substantial comedown from what was once hailed as a major victory in the war on terror.
The department was prodded into that course by U.S. District Judge Gerald Rosen in Detroit and by the defense attorneys for the two immigrants, who were bagged in a raid by federal agents looking for someone else. The department investigated defense charges that assistant U.S. attorneys withheld and misrepresented evidence, and indeed found evidence of prosecutorial misconduct fatal to the case.
Photos and drawings found in the pair's apartment did not represent what the prosecution said they did. A key witness turned out to be a known jailhouse liar. A videotape of alleged terrorist targets may well have been an ordinary vacation video. Potentially exculpatory evidence by an ex-CIA agent was withheld from the defense.
So instead of what the department insisted was "a sleeper combat cell" seeking weapons and terror targets, we don't know what we have — maybe just a couple of grifters supplying bogus documents to illegal immigrants, practically a cottage industry in this country.
Ashcroft is prone to make high-profile announcements about purported breakthroughs in the war on terror and the presence of vague new threats. Indeed, the judge admonished him for "a distressing lack of care" in his public comments on the Detroit case. Combined with the attorney general's deep penchant for secrecy, the public could be excused if it begins wondering if, like this case, there's less there than meets the eye.