A year after John Ashcroft held a press conference to announce he'd uncovered a "suspected terrorist cell" right here in Stumptown, the Nose isn't sure whether to chuckle, or tremble, at what we've learned since.

On Oct. 4, 2002, the U.S. attorney general announced his forces had broken up a shadowy six-member band of traitors, arresting four men who in late 2001 had traveled to China with the intent of entering Afghanistan. They were charged with conspiring to join al Qaeda and wage war against the United States. The arrests, Ashcroft declared, marked "a defining day in America's war against terrorism."

Last Thursday, two of the original "Portland Six" joined the seventh suspect, Mike Hawash, in cutting a deal with prosecutors. It was clearly a victory for Ashcroft.

There was no smoking gun here. In fact, it seems the only firearms Ahmed and Muhammad Bilal put their fingers on were used during target practice at a Washougal rock quarry a few weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks.

They didn't get into Pakistan, where they were supposedly to receive training, let alone Afghanistan, where they were to fight against U.S. troops. They split up in China and abandoned their plans before suffering so much as a paper cut. Hell, John Walker Lindh, who got twice as long as sentence as the Bilals, spent a week without food in a prison dungeon in his effort to defend the Taliban.

So the brothers pleaded guilty to possession of weapons for training purposes, while the conspiracy charges were reduced to aiding the Taliban. Missing from their pleas is any mention of al Qaeda.

Perhaps the feds are saving their best evidence for the remaining four suspects, but there was nothing in the Bilal brothers' testimony last week that indicated this was anything more than the Jihad that Couldn't Shoot Straight.

It would almost be comical except for the news coming out of Washington, D.C., this week. According to a report published by the Associated Press on Monday, al Qaeda leaders were still actively seeking targets in the United States and Israel earlier this year when 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was captured in Pakistan. And, we can bet, those attacks would have been frighteningly well-planned.

According to documents reviewed by the AP, Mohammed told his captors that Osama bin Laden and his pals spent five years plotting the Sept. 11 hijackings and, at one point, considered a bi-coastal attack involving five planes, with follow-up suicide missions in Southeast Asia. They were a well-financed, extremely disciplined team, which managed to stay one step ahead of the CIA.

All of which makes the Nose think that Ashcroft was right after all, at least in one respect: Oct. 4 was a "defining day." It was the day the government defined a group of Taliban wannabes in Portland as an international menace. The same government that defined Saddam Hussein as an immediate threat to our safety, a madman sitting atop a nuclear and biological arsenal.

The Nose has no illusions that the Portland Seven are innocent. This Keystone cartel obviously broke some laws and ought to be punished. And the Nose doesn't dispute that Saddam Hussein is a really, really bad man.

But by constantly overplaying their hands, President George W. Bush, John Ashcroft and the rest of the gang undermine the support of folks like the Nose. Support they need to mobilize against the genuine forces of evil, which, as the Associated Press reminded us this week, really do exist.