Fake-bomb case: A test of justice

In the Portland fake-bomb case, American justice is being tested. The case illustrates again how fighting would-be terrorism chips away at the safeguards that are supposed to protect liberty.

Almost exactly two years ago, a 19-year-old native of Somalia, Mohamed Osman Mohamud, was arrested for trying to set off a bomb which, if it had been real, could have killed and injured hundreds of people in Portland's Pioneer Square. But the bomb was a fake, made by the FBI in an undercover operation to see how far the teenager would go in carrying out his wish to become a jihadi against America.

He's supposed to go on trial in federal court in Portland early next year. The judge now has agreed with the government that the identity of two undercover agents who worked with Mahamud will be kept secret. Part of the preliminary court procedings already have been held behind closed doors. So the case already goes against two principles of justice in a free country -- that the accused be able confront his accusers, which presumably includes knowing who they are, and that courts be open so the public can watch.

As the Oregonian reported, the judge said national security justifies these departures from the normal. I can see where undercover agents don't want to have their identities disclosed if they hope to keep working. But then the government might want to handle such a case differently.

This fellow had been under surveillance for months. He was even placed on the infamous no-fly list, and he's alleged to have e-mailed someone in Yemen. Maybe in a case like this, it would be better to keep up surveillance and then swoop in when an actual crime -- not a fake one made possible by the FBI -- is about to take place. (hh)

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