TO MORE THAN a billion Muslims around the world, mosques are centers of prayer and religious instruction. They should not be casually mentioned as targets for law enforcement wiretapping, as Governor Romney did this week.
Romney was speaking at the Heritage Foundation, in his capacity of governor, on the topic ''Homeland Security: Status of Federal, State, and Local Efforts." He also was auditioning before a Washington audience for a potential national candidacy. A would-be president should know better than to slight Muslims, a vital foreign policy constituency.
Romney made the remark as he discussed his reactions to the Sept. 11 attacks. ''Prevention begins with intelligence . . . How about people in settings, mosques for instance, that maybe are teaching doctrines of hate, are we monitoring that, wiretapping . . . ?"
Romney said he concluded this kind of intelligence gathering is a federal responsibility. In the absence of evidence that mosques are terrorist havens in the United States, government officials need to avoid suggesting these revered institutions are targets of surveillance. And federal agents should not wiretap any one without a court order based on strong suspicion of wrongdoing.
Romney also mentioned his fears about foreign students in the 120 colleges and universities of Massachusetts who come from terrorist-sponsoring states. ''Are we tracking them?" he asked. Again he concluded that this is a federal responsibility. Few students come from those few nations clearly linked to terrorists. Students from friendly nations such as Saudi Arabia, with influential extremist elements, need to be treated as potential allies and intelligence sources unless they show themselves to be adversaries.
Romney said he did conclude after the Sept. 11 attacks that the state should establish a ''fusion center" to collate information coming from ''lot of eyes and ears . . . the private sector, local police departments, water and meter readers . . . and send it to Washington." The center opened last year. Let's hope no one is putting credence in uncorroborated tips from private citizens. But his statement shows a danger of the initial reaction to the Sept. 11 attacks: the accumulation of vast amounts of information that can harm innocent people without doing anything to prevent terrorism.
Romney backtracked on his statements yesterday. He would have done better to focus on the part of his speech in which, drawing on his business experience, he stressed the importance of analysis and research. These should be based on solid intelligence. In terrorism investigations such intelligence often comes from Muslim sources. Political leaders need to avoid giving offense to the very people who can help them prevent an atrocity.