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Cashing in on Counter-Terrorism

Government-friendly inexpert witnesses help grease the wheels for an unaccountable war on terror.
DOJ terrorism case

The counter-terrorism industry in the United States is largely invisible, but its cost is not, amounting to tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars annually, depending on what one includes in the reckoning. And the actual level of threat is certainly debatable. Anyone who looks at terrorism arrests and convictions in the United State would likely come to the conclusion that many of the cases that eventually go to court are borderline entrapment. A suspect is frequently first identified by way of the internet or through telephone taps, either based on radical sites visited or by connections to friends who are themselves under suspicion. A case against the individual is then developed by monitoring what he or she is saying and writing, followed by the frequent introduction of a confidential Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) informant who contrives to become a friend.

At that point the whole process becomes murky because the informant is not supposed to encourage the suspect to undertake an illegal act, which would be entrapment. Nevertheless, in many cases the suspect proceeds to commit himself more and more after the informant is introduced and in many cases the latter then provides a bomb that will not explode or a gun that will not shoot. An arrest, trial, and conviction follow, demonstrating once again that the government is doing its job against terror.

Part of the trial process is the expert witness, used by both the defense and prosecution. An expert witness is supposed to be objective but in reality he is an advocate for the viewpoint of whoever is paying for his services, though if he goes too far he is vulnerable to aggressive cross examination by the opposing side.

I have worked as an expert witness in a number of court cases, including that of the “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh, where I assisted the defense. In some cases, the witness really is expert in explaining hard forensic or scientific evidence, but very often credibility is actually the real issue. In the Lindh case, which was plea bargained and did not go to trial, I would have explained that Lindh did not in any way fit the profile of someone who was an actual participating member of a militant group, challenging claims that he was an active member of al-Qaeda. The jury would have had to weigh up both my presumed knowledge and credibility as a former CIA officer who worked on terrorism against the evidence produced by the prosecutors. The prosecution, for its part, would likely have produced its own expert witness from the intelligence community who would have disputed my testimony.

As many terrorism cases come down to trying someone for intent rather than actually having done something, it is perhaps not surprising to find a number of expert witnesses who claim to understand how terrorists think, which they exploit to strengthen the government case, resulting in longer prison sentences. Steve Emerson was perhaps the first prominent product of the proliferating expert witness phenomenon, all of whom testify for the prosecution in what has been sometimes dubbed the “guilty verdict industry.” Emerson, a notably Islamophobic journalist, cannot speak any Middle Eastern language but he is a perfect fit for the agenda-driven neocon-dominated world of terrorism punditry, associated as it is with right wing or pro-Israel organizations as a sine qua non. He insisted that 1993’s Oklahoma City bombing must have been an attack by Muslims, arguing that “inflicting as many casualties as possible is a Middle Eastern trait.” He later claimed that the “US has become occupied fundamentalist territory.” More recently, he described Birmingham England as a city “where non-Muslims simply don’t go in” and eventually had to apologize. Alexander Cockburn observed that Emerson’s “prime role is to whitewash Israeli governments and revile their critics.”

An Emerson protégé Evan Kohlmann is perhaps the most successful exploiter of the terrorism as a cash cow school of expert witness-dom, having become the go-to guy for a number of federal departments. I first noticed him in 2011 when he appeared as the NBC “network terrorism analyst” after the Anders Behring Breivik mass shooting in Norway. Kohlmann dutifully described extremist groups in northern Europe, but then opined that the example of a single man killing a large number of people with a rifle and thereby paralyzing an entire country would likely serve as a teaching point for Islamic extremists who would do the same thing, rendering it unnecessary to learn how to make bombs.

Kohlmann thereby adroitly advised how to carry out a terrorist act while also keeping the terror focus on Islamists, even though they were not involved, while also ignoring that the fact that hatred of Muslims undeniably motivated the Norwegian gunman. Within the intelligence community and at the Pentagon Kohlmann, like many of his expert colleagues, is widely considered a phony who has ingratiated himself with those who prefer an affable young media resource saying all the right things about terrorism, alarming the public while exuding a “charade of expertise.” Critics have called him the “Doogie Howser of terrorism” and a “huckster,” with a law professor describing him as a life form “grown hydroponically in the basement of the Bush Justice Department.” One observer agreed, noting that “He appears to have risen almost without trace.”

Evan Kohlmann’s credentials and connections, are to say the least, unusual. A graduate of Georgetown University and of the University of Pennsylvania law school Kohlmann has never worked in law enforcement, intelligence, or served in the military. Everything he knows about terrorism is derivative, coming from individual research in libraries and, more often, over the internet. Kohlmann even lacks the tools that the academic world would require. He does not speak or read any of the primary languages that relate to Islamic terrorist groups, to include Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, and Pashto. He has never even traveled to either Iraq or Afghanistan. In an article “Pandering to Terrorists” written for The Journal of Counterterrorism & Security, co-authored with yet another questionable terrorism expert Rita Katz, he hyperbolically described Hezbollah as a terrorist organization dedicated to the destruction of the entire Western world. While Kohlmann claims to have compiled one of the world’s largest data bases on terrorism, it would appear to be exclusively in English and, though he frequently cites it in trials as part of his bona fides, no one has ever actually seen it or been able to challenge it in court. Most intelligence professionals would agree that without practical experience Kohlmann has no idea at all of counter-terrorist operations, possesses no particular insights, and is not worth listening to.

Kohlmann has even written a book, Al-Qaeda’s Jihad in Europe: the Afghan-Bosnian Network. It postulates that Bosnian Muslims are linked in a worldwide conspiracy with al-Qaeda affiliates in Afghanistan. One reviewer dryly asked that “How can anyone even attempt to link the [extremely secular] Muslims of Bosnia to the Muslims in Afghanistan?” while another critic described how sloppy and poorly edited the book was. “From the get go Mr. Kohlmann is making cardinal mistakes starting from names of the places, and people (even ex Croat president), to the flipping [of] geographical positions of numerous places in the book. Mr. Kohlmann’s writing…is flat out incorrect and far from the truth as one could get.”

Nevertheless Kohlmann as an “expert witness” is a habitué of the U.S. judicial system. He has frequently appeared in court where he is paid as much at $400 per hour by the prosecution in terrorism cases, netting the company he founded a total of $1.2 million in fees for testifying and “consulting” with various government agencies. It has recently been revealed that he also has a classified relationship with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, presumably as an investigator, which some might regard as a conflict of interest. The federal government imprimatur also has helped Kohlmann bring in considerable additional income, including providing consulting services for private clients and an estimated $700,000 from NBC alone.

Evan Kohlmann claims to understand the “indicators” that reveal that someone might actually be a “homegrown terrorist.” He cites five or six “factors” that produce a suspect, including, in one case, providing material support to terror through translating radical material from Arabic into English for a website. Kohlmann has provided testimony in thirty trials in the United States, plus several more in Europe. The cases are often “based on charges of conspiracy or supporting a terrorist organization, where the individual’s guilt is established by association…the demand for Kohlmann’s expertise by prosecutors is not surprising…[he] tends to demonize Islamist groups, and to link disparate groups and individuals into an encompassing narrative of international terrorism.”

There have been frequent challenges raised about Kohlmann’s expertise, both regarding his command of the facts and his analysis. Marc Sageman, a former naval officer, CIA Case Officer and practicing psychiatrist believes Kohlmann “tells stories” and describes his work as “so biased, one sided and contextually inaccurate that [it does] not provide a fair and balanced context for the specific evidence to be presented at a legal hearing.” A genuine “expert witness” should ideally have publications subjected to peer review or other intimate knowledge of the issue being examined, but Kohlmann has never faced such scrutiny. In one case, he was presented as an expert on the Bangladeshi Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami, but under cross examination “it transpired that he had never written any papers on the party, nor been interviewed about the group. He had never been to Bangladesh, could not name the country’s Prime Minister nor even the leader of Jamaat-e-Islami.” But he was still permitted by the court to be an expert witness and the two accused were convicted.

Fortunately, sometimes a smarter-than-average judge will not be taken in. That actually happened to Kohlmann in London where a judge downgraded him from expert witness to “fact witness” because a 19-page report he produced on a Libyan group had clearly been completely researched on the internet. In short, the judge ruled that Kohlmann had no direct knowledge of terrorism or terrorists relevant to the case.

Evan Kohlmann is perhaps the most egregious manifestation of the global war on terror’s “terrorism expert big money business,” but he is far from unique. Like many of his colleagues, he is selling a product and would like to get rich on it before the American people wake up and the cash spigot gets turned off. More to the point, it is our own government officials, who certainly realize he is a fraud, that both protect and encourage him. They do it because it is in their own interest to obtain yet another terrorism conviction. Kohlmann is like a parasite who feeds off the system but it is the system itself that is corrupt and needs replacing.

Fourteen years of an unchallenged and largely unaccountable war on terror has certainly proven to be more than enough.

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.



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