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< Terrorism 2009 >

Posted 10/4/09

DOPES, NOT ROPED

More losers get hurled, or hurl themselves, at America.  Should we tremble?

     By Julius (Jay) Wachtel. Since 9/11 the FBI has to all appearances enjoyed a remarkable string of victories against terrorism. From the Fort Dix Six and the Liberty City/Sears Tower Seven, to the Rumble in the Bronx, the Feds have served up case after neatly-wrapped case of would-be bombers whose inner sanctums had been infiltrated by the Government from the very start.

     Planting informers in lead roles, then getting targets to say and do enough to satisfy the elements of a crime has become the favorite way to proceed.  Agents keep watch so that no one gets hurt, and dangerous stuff like explosives (duds, of course) is only furnished at the last, carefully choreographed moment. That’s when the authorities swoop in, arrest everyone and take back their pretend bombs.

     Case closed.  Next!

     But this time it was different. According to the New York Times, Najibullah Zazi, 24, first came to the attention of FBI analysts in late summer 2009.  A native of Pakistan, Zazi emigrated to New York City in the 90’s.  By 2005 he had dropped out of high school and was working a coffee cart owned by his father.  In 2007 Zazi was regularly visiting Pakistan, where he entered into an arranged marriage and had two children. According to the FBI he would later admit that on his last trip, between August 2008 and January 2009, he took explosives training at an Al Qaida camp.

     By then Zazi was in serious financial trouble, having so overspent his credit cards that he was forced into bankruptcy.  In January 2009 he moved to Colorado and got a job driving shuttles at the Denver airport.  His parents joined him in July. Thanks to store security cameras and after-the-fact interviews it’s known that in August he and possibly as many as three associates ran around Aurora beauty supply stores buying products whose ingredients were in a bomb-making recipe that FBI agents later found in Zazi’s laptop.

     When Zazi suddenly packed up a rental car on September 9, 2009 the FBI didn’t know of these purchases, nor that Zazi had unsuccessfully tried to refine his concoctions in an Aurora motel room. Still, agents must have been aware of his overseas trips.  And if Zazi’s e-mail and cell phone were already being monitored, as documents filed in the case suggest, they would have also known that he had been in touch with an unidentified person to determine the “correct mixtures of ingredients to make explosives.”

     FBI agents tailed Zazi to New York City, where he arrived on September 10.  As they still lacked an insider, information was frustratingly sketchy. Fearing the worst, NYPD anti-terror detectives working with the FBI apparently took it on themselves to ask an Imam who knew Zazi to help. Police also stopped and searched Zazi’s car as he entered New York. To help FBI agents execute a “sneak and peek” search warrant they later towed the vehicle under pretext. Inside was a laptop that contained detailed bomb-making instructions and a browsing history suggesting that Zazi was looking to buy more chemicals.

     Zazi was decidedly no genius. Still, when the Imam tipped him off that police were asking questions he flew back to Denver and stripped the laptop of its hard drive.  Realizing that the jig was up, the FBI emerged from the shadows.  Agents interviewed Zazi for two days.  Although Zazi insisted that the reason for the trip was to meet with the person who was operating his father’s coffee cart, he supposedly admitted training at an Al Qaida camp. Zazi stopped cooperating on the third day, leading the FBI to arrest him, his father and the Imam for lying to federal agents.  Zazi was later indicted for conspiring to set off weapons of mass destruction.  As of this writing none of his supposed helpers, an essential part of a conspiracy case, have been named.

     In a New York Times analysis entitled “Terror Case is Called the Most Serious in Years,” Karen J. Greenberg, executive director of NYU’s Center on Law and Security trumpeted the Zazi case as being “real scary...the case the government kept claiming it had but never did.”  Other skeptics of past FBI counter-terrorism investigations agree.  To be sure, this wasn’t the usual FBI rope-a-dope.  There was no informer or undercover agent calling the shots.  But neither is it comparable to 9/11, the Madrid Bombings or the more recent event in Bombay, which involved cadres of well-trained, highly disciplined terrorists. Poorly educated, bankrupt and holding down a menial job, Zazi was so marginal a figure that even he must have known it.

     Of course even hopeless bumblers must be stopped. Zazi likely had associates; according to MSNBC, three New York City men who reportedly helped him buy chemicals in Aurora are under watch.  Had the FBI been able to keep the investigation under wraps Zazi and his friends, if any, might have eventually succeeded in mixing a lethal cocktail. They could have also blown themselves up or hurt others while trying.

     Still, we should be wary of elevating hopeless bumblers to the top of the threat pyramid simply because the Government didn’t induce them to act.  If this ring of incompetents exists, calling it a major threat is a stretch.  Even if an Al Qaida connection holds, it’s likely just another attempt to hurl as many losers at America as possible, hoping that one will succeed.  In any event, the Zazi episode amply demonstrates the difficulty of building a traditional criminal case against terrorists while maintaining a reasonable assurance that things won’t literally blow up in one’s face.  It’s far, far more challenging than roping in dopes.  Not incidentally, it also promises to produce far fewer “successes.”

     As for major plots, we hope that the FBI’s on them, too.  But what happened last week isn’t particularly reassuring.  In two unrelated terrorist stings, FBI agents arrested Hosam Smadi, 19 and Michael Finton, 29 when they parked vehicles supposedly containing bombs, Smadi in the underground garage of a Dallas (Tx.) office tower, and Finton across from a Springfield (Ill.) Federal courthouse, and then tried to remotely activate the devices.  Smadi was first contacted by an undercover agent trolling extremist chatrooms, while Finton was lured in by an informer. And, yes, the vehicles and bombs had been furnished by the Government.

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RELATED POSTS

A Fearful Nation     Written, Produced and Directed     They Didn’t Read Police Issues     Taking Bombs From Strangers

The Men Who Talked Too Much     Rope-a-Dope     Damned if They Do, Even if They Could     Making Terrorists

Making Terrorists II


Posted 6/14/09

THE FACE OF EVIL

Holocaust Museum shooter part of an extensive, loosely-federated hate movement

     By Julius (Jay) Wachtel. It was only a matter of time until a new wacko joined Timothy McVeigh, Richard Butler, Matthew Hale and William Pierce in the racist hall of fame.  On June 10, 2009 James W. von Brunn, 88, approached the main entrance of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial MuseumOfficer  Stephen Tyrone Johns, 39, helpfully opened the glass door.  Von Brunn stepped inside, pulled a .22 rifle from his coat and fired. Johns, a six-year veteran, fell mortally wounded. His colleagues instantly reacted, the explosive sounds of their return fire ricocheting inside the cavernous building and sending visitors scurrying for cover. Von Brunn was struck in the head and at this writing remains in critical condition.

     Although von Brunn isn’t a household name in extremist circles he is known to Federal law enforcement.  In 1981 he burst into the Federal Reserve packing a revolver and sawed-off shotgun inside a trench coat.  Intending to “arrest” the Fed’s members for violating the Constitution, America’s self-anointed savior was captured without incident in the room next to where the Board was meeting.  He served six and one-half years in Federal prison. (To read his grandiose account of what happened click here.)

     Von Brunn’s homepage and biography (links are to archived versions) describe him as a decorated WW-II Navy man.  There’s a letter of reference from the late Rear Admiral John G. Crommelin, another far-right zealot, who fawned that von Brunn “deserves the gratitude and assistance of every White Christian citizen of these United States.” While imprisoned von Brunn wrote a plea to the Secretary of the Navy in which he accused the Fed of furthering a Marxist/Jewish conspiracy to subjugate the chosen race.  He never got a response.

     Von Brunn’s inspiration is a white supremacist ideology that dates back to the founding of the Ku Klux Klan.  At its core is the conviction that by natural law European Christians are the master race, but that our government has been co-opted by rich Jews, blacks, immigrants and mongrels to whose whims everyone else must cater.  In effect, von Brunn and his ilk aren’t bigots: they’re victims.

     Adherents of this hateful philosophy have taken different paths to resistance.  Some, including the neo-Nazi Aryan Nations, Waco’s messianic Branch Davidians and the similarly oriented Covenant, Sword and Arm of the Lord (CSA) built compounds where members and their families lived apart from conventional society.  Inevitably, their activities brought them into conflict with authorities. In the early 1980’s members of an Aryan Nations splinter group known as “The Order” staged a series of bank robberies, culminating in a wild shootout with the FBI.  In 1998 Aryan Nations security guard Buford Furrow went on a spree, wounding several persons at a Jewish center and killing an Asian letter carrier. A racial harassment lawsuit ultimately led to the organization’s bankruptcy and the sale of their property.

     During the 1980’s the Branch Davidians, in Texas, and the CSA, in Arkansas, acquired large quantities of illegal weapons and waited for the apocalypse. Federal agents neutralized the CSA in a 1985 raid that passed without major incident.  However, a 1993 attempt to replicate that success with the Branch Davidians led to the shooting death of four ATF agents. Eighty-two members of the sect, including twenty children, later died in a fire that the Feds insist was purposely set by the sect.

     After that tragedy authorities took a more measured approach. Three years later, in perhaps the last standoff of any size, twenty members of a tax-resistance group called the “Montana Freemen” holed up in their compound for nearly three months while dodging Federal tax and fraud warrants. Instead of sending in SWAT teams the FBI quietly waited them out, and in the end all peacefully surrendered.

     Supremacist groups have remained mostly quiet during the past decade. That’s not to say that everything’s been rosy.  Since Timothy McVeigh’s murderous 1995 attack on the Oklahoma City Federal Building, which cost 168 innocent lives, deranged, gun-wielding loners with a victimhood complex have staged a number of mini-massacres at malls, universities and other public places. Most recently, three Pittsburgh (Penn.) police officers were killed and a fourth was wounded by a fanatic who complained about “the Obama gun ban that's on the way.”

     With the election of a black liberal as President, observers from the left and, surprisingly, a famous TV news anchor from the right have expressed concern that overheated conservative rhetoric has legitimized hate, energized the radical fringe and set the stage for even more mayhem.

 

Coming on the heels of the murder of a physician at a Kansas abortion clinic, von Brunn’s murderous act is raising new fears that a resurgence of extremist violence is in the works. We’ll soon know whether that’s true.

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RELATED PUBLICATIONS

Guns and Hate, a Brady Center monograph on domestic hate movements (July 2009)

RELATED POSTS

Is This What the Framers Intended?     Don’t Blame the NRA   Disturbed Person   Looking Beyond the Gun Barrel


Posted 5/24/09

ROPE-A-DOPE

Now that five “Liberty City” plotters stand convicted, should we feel safer?

     By Julius (Jay) Wachtel. “This wasn't so much a case of the FBI interrupting an ongoing terror plot, but of the agency providing a blueprint for it.”  So said the editorial board of the Miami Herald.

     “We identified and disrupted a terrorist threat, and as a result our community and nation are a much safer place.”  So said Jonathan Solomon, special agent in charge of the FBI office in Miami.

     Which account is the more accurate? Two weeks after five Liberty City (Miami) residents were convicted of plotting to bomb the Miami FBI office and the Chicago Sears Tower, the truth remains elusive. With trials in November 2007 and April 2008 ending in hung juries (one defendant was acquitted at the end of the first trial, another at the most recent) things seem a lot less certain than three years ago, when Attorney General Alberto Gonzales announced the dismantling of a home-grown terrorist cell that intended to wage a “full ground war against the United States.”

     It all began when a snitch told the FBI that the head of a tiny Muslim sect in the impoverished “Liberty City” area of Miami was ranting against the Government.  During the next few months the original stoolie and a second informer posing as an Al Qaeda representative encouraged Narseal Batiste and his followers to talk trash about the U.S.

     As the indictment attests, Batiste, who once lived in Chicago, was recorded saying that he wanted to blow up the city’s famed landmark, the 108-floor Sears Tower.  In another taped event an informer led Batiste and his motley crew (the indictment referred to them as “soldiers”) in pledging allegiance to Al Qaeda, a ritual that was offered to jurors as proof positive of the cabal’s dastardly intentions.  Prompted for a wish list, Batiste requested radios, guns, boots, weapons, a camera and $50,000 cash (he got boots and the camera.)  He and an underling then drove around Miami in a van rented by the FBI and photographed Federal offices they supposedly intended to bomb.

     Batiste would later testify that he only cased the buildings to collect the 50 G’s. Whatever his intentions, taking the pictures was the overt act that agents and prosecutors had been waiting for. On June 22, 2006 Batiste and six followers (the indictment ominously called them “soldiers”) were arrested for conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization and to destroy buildings with explosives, charges that could bring terms of as much as fifty years.

     That’s when a funny thing happened. During a press conference Assistant FBI Director John Pistole let slip that the plot was “more aspirational than operational.” His candid comment, which probably caused much heartburn at the Hoover building, reflected the undeniable fact that the case against the men was awfully thin. No evidence of any kind -- neither weapons, terrorist plans nor bomb manuals -- was recovered from the forlorn warehouse that served as the alleged terrorist lair.  What there was lots and lots of chatter, much of it prompted by informers who were reportedly paid more than $100,000 to help bring the motley group within reach of the law.

     Considering all that it’s no surprise that juries revolted twice. Jeffrey Agron, a lawyer and foreman at the first trial said that jurors felt the first informant lacked credibility, and that the second  led the defendants on.  “It's a case where a government informant got a bunch of guys together to swear a loyalty oath to Al Qaeda,” he said. “It's a B movie really, more than a criminal case.”

     Yet like everyone in Hollywood knows, given a large enough ad budget even a lousy movie can succeed.  After taking “three bites of the apple” and spending millions the Feds finally managed to tailor a case that stuck.  Or mostly stuck. A third mistrial was avoided when the judge expelled a juror whom the others accused of refusing to deliberate.  Whether she was uncooperative or a victim of bullying will surely come up on appeal.

     Domestic Jihad, virtually unknown before 9/11, has become a growth industry.  Fortunately, our homegrown terrorists seem to lack the leadership skills, ideas and physical and material means to act on their own.  With always an informer to track the shenanigans, remarkably not a single plot has slipped through to completion. In the most recent example, which occurred only days ago in the Bronx, four ex-cons got caught planting what they thought were real bombs at two synagogues. They reportedly got the devices (and one supposes, the notion) from Shahed Hussain, an experienced FBI informer.  Until the rumble in the Bronx the smooth-talking ex-con’s claim to fame was the Albany, New York “pizza shop” sting of 2004, where he got two Muslim men targeted by the FBI to help him in a bizarre, wholly made-up money laundering scheme that defense lawyers fruitlessly challenged as an outrageous example of entrapment.

     It’s hard to feel sorry for those who harbor radical fantasies. Still, as the writer well knows, there’s a big difference between infiltrating an active criminal organization and trolling for naive opportunists.  Many believe that the collapse of the Twin Towers led to a like collapse in the values and precepts that make the American system of justice special. Of course, we should worry when the government acts as a provocateur.  And it’s not only a moral concern.  As we’ve pointed out in earlier posts manipulating dopes and staging show trials promotes an illusion of safety while distracting agencies from doing the hard work that’s necessary to uncover real threats.

     Where the Feds once led the charge for higher standards, it seems that they’re now leading the race to the cellar.  It’s not the terrorists’ character that we ought to be worrying about.

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RELATED REPORTS

NYU “Targeted and Entrapped” Report

RELATED POSTS

Written, Produced and Directed     Dopes, Not Roped     They Didn’t Read Police Issues     Taking Bombs From Strangers

The Men Who Talked Too Much     If You Can’t Find a Terrorist, Make One!     Damned if They Do, Even if They Could

Making Terrorists II


Posted 5/3/09

TORTURE: WHO DECIDES?

The real dilemma’s not about using torture -- it’s about authorizing it

     By Julius (Jay) Wachtel. Where did “enhanced interrogation” techniques come from? No, they’re not an outgrowth of the 3D experiments (“debility-dependence-dread state”) that the C.I.A. commissioned during the Cold War. Neither did they originate with SERE, the program that prepares special ops troops for those nasty “we have ways to make you talk” methods that made North Korean interrogators famous. Nope, for the real scoop we must turn to...Hollywood!

     A vicious criminal buried a comely teen alive and abandoned her to suffocate. After the requisite number of chases and shootouts Inspector Callahan caught up with the kidnapper. There was no time to argue.  Where is she?

     While “Dirty Harry” has its comic-strip moments much of it rings true. Its depiction of the kidnapping seems nearly prophetic. In 2002 real German police arrested the abductor of an 11-year old boy when he tried to pick up the ransom.  But the man stubbornly refused to help officers find the child. After hours of fruitless questioning Frankfurt’s deputy police chief bluntly warned him that if he didn’t cooperate a “specialist” would be summoned to inflict unbearable pain. Although the ruse worked, it failed to save the victim: his body was found in a lake, swathed in plastic.

     Scorpio’s victim also turned up dead. But unlike the German cop, who was relieved of duty and investigated for merely threatening torture, Inspector Callahan, who really did it (on screen) got off scot-free. Well, there were sequels to be filmed!

     Dirty Harry’s actions stirred spirited debate in the halls of academe.  In his classic essay “The Dirty Harry Problem,” criminologist Carl Klockars used what the Inspector did to explore the means-end dilemmas that real cops encounter.  But long before the movie hit theaters a string of Supreme Court decisions had already made it clear that anything remotely smacking of torture would make whatever the police got inadmissible in court:

  • Rochin v. California (1953): Officers choked a suspect who was swallowing pills, and when they couldn’t get him to stop had his stomach pumped out.  (In this landmark case the Court ruled that police behavior which “shocks the conscience” violates the Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.)
     
  • Leyra v. Denno (1954): During a relentless interrogation a psychiatrist posing as an ordinary physician told the defendant, who was suffering from a severe sinus condition, how much better he would feel if he confessed.
     
  • Spano v. New York (1959): The defendant confessed after a friend (a police cadet) begged him, saying that if he didn’t the cadet would get in trouble and his wife and kids would suffer.
     
  • Rogers v. Richmond (1961): After a prolonged, fruitless interrogation officers threatened to arrest a suspect’s sick wife
     
  • Frazier v. Cupp (1969). Officers subjected a defendant to a grueling 36-hour interrogation.

     Next thing we knew there was Abu Ghraib.  Shocked by disclosures that “unlawful combatants” were being starved, deprived of sleep, forced to stand in stress positions for hours, and so forth, attorney Alan Dershowitz wrote that it was time to give the whole matter of torture a proper airing.  A year later Dershowitz wrote a follow-up article suggesting that requiring interrogators to justify the necessity for “rough interrogation” techniques by securing special warrants could help assure that unsavory methods were used only when really, really necessary.

     As Dershowitz is a well-known civil libertarian, his piece set off a ruckus.  In “Torture: the Case for Dirty Harry and Against Alan Dershowitz” philosopher Uwe Steinhoff lauded Inspector Callahan’s instincts:

    The Dirty Harry case, it seems to me, is a case of morally justified torture. But isn’t
    the kidnapper right? Does not even he have rights? Yes, he has, but in these circumstances he does not have the right not to be tortured. Again, the situation is analogous to self-defence. The aggressor does not lose all of his rights, but his right to life weighs less than the innocent defender’s right to life...Harry made the right decision.

     Steinhoff nonetheless warned against officially endorsing torture, reasoning that giving it legitimacy would amplify its use and coarsen the system.  Agreeing with Klockars, he suggested that the best way to keep repugnant yet potentially lifesaving practices within bounds was to place would-be torturers on notice that they could be prosecuted.  His moral calculus brings to mind a 1999 ruling by the Israeli Supreme Court (cited by Dershowitz) that outlawed all forms of torture but left it up to judges to forgive interrogators who thought they had no option.

     In a rejoinder Dershowitz pointed out that Bill Clinton had supported using Presidential findings to authorize torture should extreme situations warrant. What neither the lawyer nor the ex-President knew was that Justice Department attorneys crafted secret guidelines so permissive that two Al Qaeda suspects wound up getting waterboarded a total of 266 times.  Just as Klockars and Steinhoff  feared, trying to regulate “enhanced interrogation techniques” only managed to grease an already slippery moral slope.

     History tells us that crusades (think War on Terror) have led otherwise good people to endorse and engage in the most brutal and despicable behavior. Remember the Milgram experiment?  It’s not surprising that when our new President realized what was happening under the Stars and Stripes he would adopt the Klockars/Steinhoff approach and ban torture altogether.  It may not be a perfect solution. But in this world it’s as close to perfection as we’re likely to get.

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  Click here for Jay’s collected gun control essays - here for his ethics essays - and here for his novel, “Stalin’s Witnesses”

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