[Vision2020] Coding while Muslim

Ron Force rforce@moscow.com
Fri, 18 Jun 2004 09:46:13 -0700

Column from educational technology magazine.

Ron Force          Moscow ID USA

Coding While Muslim

By Terry Calhoun

I don't know about you, but since the very early days of the World Wide Web,
a lot of my time has been spent assisting a wide range of nonprofit
organizations in obtaining domain registrations, designing, setting up, and
maintaining Web sites. That's why I was chilled the first time I dove into
news information about the Patriot Act-based charges against Sami Omar
al-Hussayen, a Saudi National completing a Ph.D. in computer science at the
University of Idaho.

On the one hand, the Department of Justice was claiming that al-Hussayen had
built and maintained an Internet network for terrorists. But every time I
read the specifics about what he did, it sounded like the sort of stuff I do
all the time for various nonprofit organizations. And it sounds a lot like
that Patriot Act clause could be held against anyone working on a campus IT
resource that is misused.

The good news is that the trial is over and the jury acquitted al-Hussayen
of the Patriot Act-related charges. That good news is for you and me, not
for al-Hussayen, as the best he can still hope for after more than a year
already of imprisonment is that he'll end up shipped back to Saudi Arabia on
some visa-related charges.

There's a clause in the Patriot Act that makes it a crime to provide "expert
guidance or assistance" to groups deemed terrorist. It was one of the parts
of the act that many pundits, from a wide range of political thought, were
critical of when the act was deliberated and passed. According to Georgetown
University law professor David Cole, "Somebody who fixes a fax machine that
is owned by a group that may advocate terrorism could be liable" under the
provision in question.

By all non-governmental accounts that I have read, al-Hussayen is a very
nice person and is in fact a pacifist, devoted to charitable works. But at
first I bought into the government charges of a network of terrorism. But as
the news kept coming out, I kept reading news items and waiting for the
other shoe to drop. I kept asking myself, "What is it that the Department of
Justice really has on him? What did he really do that his defense attorneys
are hiding from the public?"

Here's what he unequivocally did with regard to the Patriot Act charges,
which are my focus here:

 He registered some domain names for some charitable groups, none of which
are listed as terrorist organizations and the main one of which is still in
operation as a legal charity;
 He set up some Web sites, including threaded bulletin board discussions,
and maybe some e-mail discussion lists; and
 He was among the moderators of a Yahoo! Group on which a handful of
posters posted messages in support of suicide bombing. (Heavily outweighed
by other topics, including lots of postings against suicide bombings.)

It was reported that at his trial the Department of Justice displayed a
graphic illustrating how one of the Web sites that he helped maintain could,
through hyperlinks, eventually lead a viewer into 20 other Web sites with
ties to bad organizations. Wow. Really? I wonder if those links eventually
lead to the Department of Justice Web site? Care to follow the linkages on
some of the sites on your institution's servers?

That's what became more and more chilling as I learned more about this case.
He simply did not do anything with his information technology skills that I
don't routinely do. Or that you don't routinely do as part of your job for
thousands of students, faculty, and staff - any one of whom might decide to
use those resources for bad purposes.

It's not coincidental that the jury kicked out the charges against
al-Hussayen. Even though Idaho is one of the "reddest" of the red states,
people clear across the political spectrum are more and more critical of
many parts of the Patriot Act, including the clause at issue here. And, in
fact, even as the Department of Justice was bringing this case to trial, an
appeals court in California had already declared that part of the Patriot
Act to be unconstitutional, although that ruling has no standing in the
State of Idaho.

The best news, though, is that more and more people - of all kinds - think
it's time to re-examine and refine the Patriot Act in light of what we've
learned by seeing it in action. And I think that's a very good thing.

Terry Calhoun is Director of Communications and Publications for the Society
for College and University Planning (SCUP) www.scup.org).

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