Far from Guantanamo, the U.S. government fought to keep original ricin suspect Paul Kevin Curtis locked up even though it had no evidence he was involved in the ricin attacks, or any crime. According to an FBI affidavit, within two days of Curtis' arrest, the government started investigating the current suspect. Moreover, the government actively worked to keep Curtis in jail even though it was clear early on he was not the perpetrator.
First, three days after the arrest, prosecutors asked for a psychiatric evaluation — a request usually made by defense lawyers. That could have extended his stay in federal prison by several months and allowed investigators to continue to question him.The government was no doubt trying to delay having to present evidence against Curtis because the only "evidence" the government had to arrest Curtis in the first place was based on his First Amendment-protected Facebook posts and draft book. Being a goofball, posting colorful Facebook statuses and writing a creative book are not probable cause.
Then, after a judge denied the request, federal prosecutors filed a motion seeking to postpone a court hearing at which they would be required to reveal the evidence they had against Curtis. That was also turned down.
More than the jail time, which is unacceptable but certainly significantly less than too many other innocent people have spent behind bars without charge, the government vilified Curtis, labeling him a bioterrorist, turned his life upside down with invasive searches, and humiliated him in the press.
When such smears come with the imprimatur of the government, they stick. I was placed under criminal investigation a decade ago after blowing the whistle in the case of "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh. Even though I was completely exonerated and the government abandoned the criminal case without filing charges, I still must defend myself against the government's false accusations with regularity. (Just two days ago on Daily Kos a commenter accused me of stealing e-mails).
In the ricin case, the government seemed more concerned with delivering a suspect and saving face rather than uncovering the truth and serving justice.
Criminal justice experts said the political pressure from Washington to solve the ricin case would have been intense, particularly since the president was targeted and it occurred around the same time as the Boston Marathon bombing. Some experts said the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks taught law enforcement officials to do everything possible to prevent attacks, even if it means arresting the wrong person.The Fifth Amendment specifically forbids holding criminal suspects without due process, but both the Bush and Obama administrations have steadily eroded Fifth Amendment protections. Too many Americans have accepted prolonged indefinite detention for Guantanamo detainees, immigrants, and any number of Americans engaged in First Amendment-protected activities under the National Defense Authorization Act.
Compare Curtis' case to other abuses of individual rights, and it will be no surprise if most Americans don't flinch at the vilification, detention, invasive search of one innocent man. Therein lies the danger of the Obama administration letting Bush-era Executive overreach and constitutional violations continue, expand, or fade away without accountability. Americans can say about a violation of Curtis' Fifth Amendment rights, "At least he wasn't rendered to torture, waterboarded, targeted in a drone strike or thrown in Guantanamo for a decade."
The Curtis case should not seem more palatable simply because the government has done worse to others in terrorism investigations. First it was "enemy combatants," then foreign terrorism suspects, and now American terrorist suspects like Curtis. Our descent down this slippery slope is only accelerating. America is replete with colorful characters: a naked cowboy in Times Square, the guy who rides his bicycle backwards all over D.C., the entire cast of Jersey Shore, etc. If Curtis can be so easily framed for a terrorist attack, then we should all be worried.
As Thomas Paine said:
He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.