Fear Factor

The public is getting an incomplete picture of domestic terrorism threats.



Acting U.S. attorney Larry Laurenzi says anti-terrorism is the "number-one priority" of his office.

Memphis Police Department director Larry Godwin says "it's a matter of time" before suicide bombers begin attacking targets in the United States. "It's going to hit. I know it."

My Harrison, the head of the local FBI office, says, "You don't hear of the terrorist acts that are preempted. There are some. There are many."

And Willie Hulon, a former Memphis police officer who is head of the FBI's worldwide counter-terrorism operations, says, "We have to focus now on the potential for home-grown terrorists."

All four law enforcement leaders spoke to an auditorium full of prosecutors, cops, sheriffs, and special agents from Tennessee and Mississippi at a meeting last week in Bartlett. But after raising the regional threat level -- verbally, at least -- to orange, they ran off the media and held the rest of their meeting in private. The reason given by FBI spokesman George Bolds was that agencies needed to be able to speak candidly to each other and clear the air about any concerns.

A hint of what those concerns might be came from a rural sheriff who asked Hulon if he and his men should be concerned about the influx of Hispanic workers in his area. Clearly, he already was. A Shelby County sheriff's deputy asked about convenience stores operated or owned by Middle Eastern men and whether these might be sources of cigarette smuggling, which could in turn be a source of terrorist funds.

"I would not say just because a Middle Easterner is running a convenience store that it should come up on our scope," said Hulon.

What a ringing defense of the Bill of Rights.

Hulon and other speakers blamed media reports for presenting a misleading picture of terrorist threats. Then they booted the reporters.

The public is getting shortchanged on the terrorism story. We're getting the scary predictions, the shady connections, the suspicions, and the indictments of Middle Eastern men in Memphis who may or may not have terrorist connections. And we can expect to hear and see more of this in 2006, which will be the first year that Tennessee and other states have to compete against each other for federal anti-terrorism funds.

Can you say pork barrel? Can you say guns and ammo, surveillance equipment, travel allowances, jobs, and SUVs and Hummers in the name of Homeland Security?

Obviously, there is a need for secrecy in any criminal investigation, especially terrorism. Memphis, because of its location and the headquarters of FedEx, should make a strong claim for its fair share of the state and federal anti-terrorism budgets. It's reassuring and impressive that Hulon and James Bolden of the local Homeland Security office are former Memphis cops, that Laurenzi is an experienced career prosecutor, and that his two assistants specializing in terrorism cases -- Fred Godwin and Steve Parker -- are also career prosecutors and former police officers with broad experience.

But there's a need for accountability on spending on every level to avoid overlap and waste, and the public deserves more openness about ambiguous terror threats. A starting point is the two pending Joint Terrorism Task Force cases in federal court that involve Middle Easterners. Mahmoud Maawad, a U of M student with an unusual interest in pilot gear, has a hearing this week. Rafat Mawlawi, a Syrian-American held without bond on immigration and weapons charges since April, has a change-of-plea hearing in January. If they're terrorist sympathizers, we need to know all about it. But if they're not, it is just as important that we know that and exactly why they were held so long without bond.

If Director Godwin's prediction comes true in the Mid-South, diversity gets a downgrade. Then I would not want to be an Indian hotel owner, a Mexican construction worker without a green card, an Iranian convenience store clerk, or an Egyptian graduate student in a country which gets its ideas about terrorism from television programs like 24.

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