U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft set the bar high last October when he went to Chicago and announced that the federal government had secured the indictment of a major financial player in Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaida global terrorism network. Thus, Ashcroft now has the duty to fully explain to the American people why his Justice Department entered into a plea agreement with Enaam M. Arnaout, director of the Chicago-based Benevolence International Foundation, one of the largest Muslim charities in the United States.
No, Arnaout did not admit to funneling any donations to bin Laden, the mastermind of world terrorism, or Al-Qaida, which was responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on America's mainland. Nor did he admit to having any ties to terrorism. What then did Ashcroft's Justice Department squeeze from this naturalized American citizen who was born in Syria?
Arnaout pleaded guilty to one count of racketeering conspiracy. That count stemmed from his illegally sending donations to rebel fighters in Bosnia and Chechnya in the 1990s. The money was used to purchase military supplies, including boots and tents.
In return for the plea, federal prosecutors dropped six other charges that were based on the government's contention that he financed terrorism.
It is instructive to recall the words of the attorney general when he announced the indictment four months ago: "There is no moral distinction between those who carry out terrorist attacks and those who knowingly finance terrorist attacks." So if the federal government believed that the director of the Benevolence International Foundation was financing terrorist attacks, why would prosecutors not want a full-blown trial to show the world that President Bush's promise to root out terrorism wherever it may exist is being kept?
Because as in other cases, including the administration's insistence that Osama bin Laden's days were numbered and that he had run out of hiding places, the government overreached. Prosecutors thought they had a big fish when they nabbed Arnaout, only to subsequently find out that the evidence did not support their preconceptions.
But even now, the Justice Department insists the plea agreement is a good thing because the sentencing will be based on how much cooperation they receive from Arnaout and how much information he gives them about Al-Qaida.
However, the defendant's lawyers insist that their client does not have ties to Al-Qaida or bin Laden and, therefore, won't be able to give prosecutors what they want.
This puts the onus on Attorney General Ashcroft to explain to the American people what's really going on.
No one is doubting that there are active Al-Qaida cells in the United States, as there are in 60 countries around the world, and that these cells are a major threat so long as bin Laden eludes capture or death. But what is at stake here is the credibility of the federal government.