Apr 1 2002

Learning Nothing From Wen Ho Lee

In a January 26 news article about possible suspects in the anthrax cases last year, the New York Times seemed to confuse the idea of nationality and criminality. “One person on the short list is from Somalia and did graduate work in biology at a Midwestern university that possessed anthrax, including the Ames strain used in the letter attacks,” the paper reported. “A Muslim, the student repeatedly sent money home to Mogadishu, the Somali capital well known for its feuding warlords and terrorists.”

These facts about the grad student were presented as if they were grounds for suspicion–indeed, these were all the details the article gave about why the FBI was interested in the student. But is being Muslim really grounds for suspecting someone of terrorism? That would mean that there are at least a billion terrorist suspects in the world. And surely sending money home is not unusual behavior for an immigrant in the U.S., though it would be somewhat peculiar behavior for a terrorist, who would presumably need to save his money to finance terrorist plots.

So, apparently, it’s mainly the fact that the student is from Somalia that explains–according to the New York Times–why the FBI should take an interest. After all, Somalia’s capital city is “well known for its feuding warlords and terrorists.” While it’s difficult to recall the names of any famous Somali terrorists, it would be an odd description regardless–like describing someone with no known criminal connections as coming from “New York City, well known for its Mafia families and corruption.” It’s called guilt by association, and it’s not good police work–or good journalism. (It is, however, strikingly reminiscent of the case of Wen Ho Lee, the Los Alamos scientist accused of spying, by both the FBI and the New York Times, almost entirely on the basis of his ethnicity.)

After noting that the Somali grad student was vouched for by a colleague, who said the student would have no idea how to make advanced anthrax powder, the article noted that he had made the suspect list because he “had physical access to the Ames strain and links, however tenuous, to terrorism.” Of course, the FBI may have evidence that it’s not revealing to the press, but the Times makes it sound like those “links” to terrorism consist of the suspect’s religion, nationality and sending money home. It’s possible that the FBI is practicing this simple-minded form of religious and ethnic profiling, but if so, the New York Timesshouldn’t report it as if it makes sense.