Tuesday, February 10, 2015

US: Terrorism Prosecutions Often An Illusion

The US Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) have targeted American Muslims in abusive counterterrorism “sting operations” based on religious and ethnic identity, Human Rights Watch and Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute said in a report released today. Many of the more than 500 terrorism-related cases prosecuted in US federal courts since September 11, 2001, have alienated the very communities that can help prevent terrorist crimes.

The 214-page report, “Illusion of Justice: Human Rights Abuses in US Terrorism Prosecutions,”examines 27 federal terrorism cases from initiation of the investigations to sentencing and post-conviction conditions of confinement. It documents the significant human cost of certain counterterrorism practices, such as overly aggressive sting operations and unnecessarily restrictive conditions of confinement.
“Americans have been told that their government is keeping them safe by preventing and prosecuting terrorism inside the US,” said Andrea Prasow, deputy Washington director at Human Rights Watch and one of the authors of the report. “But take a closer look and you realize that many of these people would never have committed a crime if not for law enforcement encouraging, pressuring, and sometimes paying them to commit terrorist acts.”


Many prosecutions have properly targeted individuals engaged in planning or financing terror attacks, the groups found. But many others have targeted people who do not appear to have been involved in terrorist plotting or financing at the time the government began to investigate them. And many of the cases involve due process violations and abusive conditions of confinement that have resulted in excessively long prison sentences.

The report is based on more than 215 interviews with people charged with or convicted of terrorism-related crimes, members of their families and their communities, criminal defense attorneys, judges, current and former federal prosecutors, government officials, academics, and other experts.

In some cases the FBI may have created terrorists out of law-abiding individuals by suggesting the idea of taking terrorist action or encouraging the target to act. Multiple studies have found that nearly 50 percent of the federal counterterrorism convictions since September 11, 2001, resulted from informant-based cases. Almost 30 percent were sting operations in which the informant played an active role in the underlying plot.

In the case of the “Newburgh Four,” for example, who were accused of planning to blow up synagogues and attack a US military base, a judge said the government “came up with the crime, provided the means, and removed all relevant obstacles,” and had, in the process, made a terrorist out of a man “whose buffoonery is positively Shakespearean in scope.”

The FBI often targeted particularly vulnerable people, including those with intellectual and mental disabilities and the indigent. The government, often acting through informants, then actively developed the plot, persuading and sometimes pressuring the targets to participate, and provided the resources to carry it out.

“The US government should stop treating American Muslims as terrorists-in-waiting,” Prasow said. “The bar on entrapment in US law is so high that it’s almost impossible for a terrorism suspect to prove. Add that to law enforcement preying on the particularly vulnerable, such as those with mental or intellectual disabilities, and the very poor, and you have a recipe for rampant human rights abuses.”

Rezwan Ferdaus, for example, pled guilty to attempting to blow up a federal building and was sentenced to 17 years in prison. Although an FBI agent even told Ferdaus’ father that his son “obviously” had mental health problems, the FBI targeted him for a sting operation, sending an informant into Ferdaus’ mosque. Together, the FBI informant and Ferdaus devised a plan to attack the Pentagon and US Capitol, with the FBI providing fake weaponry and funding Ferdaus’ travel. Yet Ferdaus was mentally and physically deteriorating as the fake plot unfolded, suffering depression and seizures so bad his father quit his job to care for him.

The US has also made overly broad use of material support charges, punishing behavior that did not demonstrate an intent to support terrorism. The courts have accepted prosecutorial tactics that may violate fair trial rights, such as introducing evidence obtained by coercion, classified evidence that cannot be fairly contested, and inflammatory evidence about terrorism in which defendants played no part – and asserting government secrecy claims to limit challenges to surveillance warrants.

Ahmed Omar Abu Ali is a US citizen who alleged that he was whipped and threatened with amputation while detained without charge in Saudi Arabia – after a roundup following the 2003 bombings of Western compounds in the Saudi capital of Riyadh – until he provided a confession to Saudi interrogators that he says was false. Later, when Ali went to trial in Virginia, the judge rejected Ali’s claims of torture and admitted his confession into evidence. He was convicted of conspiracy, providing material support to terrorists, and conspiracy to assassinate the president. He received a life sentence, which he is serving in solitary confinement at the federal supermax prison in Florence, Colorado.

The US has in terrorism cases used harsh and at times abusive conditions of confinement, which often appear excessive in relation to the security risk posed. This includes prolonged solitary confinement and severe restrictions on communicating in pretrial detention, possibly impeding defendants’ ability to assist in their own defense and contributing to their decisions to plead guilty. Judges have imposed excessively lengthy sentences, and some prisoners suffer draconian conditions post-conviction, including prolonged solitary confinement and severe restrictions on contact with families or others, sometimes without explanation or recourse.

Nine months after his arrest on charges of material support for terrorism and while he was refusing a plea deal, Uzair Paracha was moved to a harsh regime of solitary confinement. Special Administrative Measures (SAMs) – national security restrictions on his contact with others – permitted Paracha to speak only to prison guards.

“You could spend days to weeks without uttering anything significant beyond ‘Please cut my lights,’ ‘Can I get a legal call/toilet paper/a razor,’ etc., or just thanking them for shutting our light,” he wrote to the report’s researchers. After he was convicted, the SAMs were modified to permit him to communicate with other inmates. “I faced the harshest part of the SAMs while I was innocent in the eyes of American law,” he wrote.

These abuses have had an adverse impact on American Muslim communities. The government’s tactics to seek out terrorism suspects, at times before the target has demonstrated any intention to use violence, has undercut parallel efforts to build relationships with American Muslim community leaders and groups that may be critical sources of information to prevent terrorist attacks.

In some communities, these practices have deterred interaction with law enforcement. Some Muslim community members said that fears of government surveillance and informant infiltration have meant they must watch what they say, to whom, and how often they attend services.

“Far from protecting Americans, including American Muslims, from the threat of terrorism, the policies documented in this report have diverted law enforcement from pursuing real threats,” Prasow said. “It is possible to protect people’s rights and also prosecute terrorists, which increases the chances of catching genuine criminals.”

Source: Human Rights Watch



Terrorist Plots Hatched By The F.B.I.

THE United States has been narrowly saved from lethal terrorist plots in recent years — or so it has seemed. A would-be suicide bomber was intercepted on his way to the Capitol; a scheme to bomb synagogues and shoot Stinger missiles at military aircraft was developed by men in Newburgh, N.Y.; and a fanciful idea to fly explosive-laden model planes into the Pentagon and the Capitol was hatched in Massachusetts.

But all these dramas were facilitated by the F.B.I., whose undercover agents and informers posed as terrorists offering a dummy missile, fake C-4 explosives, a disarmed suicide vest and rudimentary training. Suspects naïvely played their parts until they were arrested.
When an Oregon college student, Mohamed Osman Mohamud, thought of using a car bomb to attack a festive Christmas-tree lighting ceremony in Portland, the F.B.I. provided a van loaded with six 55-gallon drums of “inert material,” harmless blasting caps, a detonator cord and a gallon of diesel fuel to make the van smell flammable. An undercover F.B.I. agent even did the driving, with Mr. Mohamud in the passenger seat. To trigger the bomb the student punched a number into a cellphone and got no boom, only a bust.
This is legal, but is it legitimate? Without the F.B.I., would the culprits commit violence on their own? Is cultivating potential terrorists the best use of the manpower designed to find the real ones? Judging by their official answers, the F.B.I. and the Justice Department are sure of themselves — too sure, perhaps.
Carefully orchestrated sting operations usually hold up in court. Defendants invariably claim entrapment and almost always lose, because the law requires that they show no predisposition to commit the crime, even when induced by government agents. To underscore their predisposition, many suspects are “warned about the seriousness of their plots and given opportunities to back out,” said Dean Boyd, a Justice Department spokesman. But not always, recorded conversations show. Sometimes they are coaxed to continue.
Undercover operations, long practiced by the F.B.I., have become a mainstay of counterterrorism, and they have changed in response to the post-9/11 focus on prevention. “Prior to 9/11 it would be very unusual for the F.B.I. to present a crime opportunity that wasn’t in the scope of the activities that a person was already involved in,” said Mike German of the American Civil Liberties Union, a lawyer and former F.B.I. agent who infiltrated white supremacist groups. An alleged drug dealer would be set up to sell drugs to an undercover agent, an arms trafficker to sell weapons. That still happens routinely, but less so in counterterrorism, and for good reason.
“There isn’t a business of terrorism in the United States, thank God,” a former federal prosecutor, David Raskin, explained.
“You’re not going to be able to go to a street corner and find somebody who’s already blown something up,” he said. Therefore, the usual goal is not “to find somebody who’s already engaged in terrorism but find somebody who would jump at the opportunity if a real terrorist showed up in town.”
And that’s the gray area. Who is susceptible? Anyone who plays along with the agents, apparently. Once the snare is set, law enforcement sees no choice. “Ignoring such threats is not an option,” Mr. Boyd argued, “given the possibility that the suspect could act alone at any time or find someone else willing to help him.”
Typically, the stings initially target suspects for pure speech — comments to an informer outside a mosque, angry postings on Web sites, e-mails with radicals overseas — then woo them into relationships with informers, who are often convicted felons working in exchange for leniency, or with F.B.I. agents posing as members of Al Qaeda or other groups.
Some targets have previous involvement in more than idle talk: for example, Waad Ramadan Alwan, an Iraqi in Kentucky, whose fingerprints were found on an unexploded roadside bomb near Bayji, Iraq, and Raja Khan of Chicago, who had sent funds to an Al Qaeda leader in Pakistan.
But others seem ambivalent, incompetent and adrift, like hapless wannabes looking for a cause that the informer or undercover agent skillfully helps them find. Take the Stinger missile defendant James Cromitie, a low-level drug dealer with a criminal record that included no violence or hate crime, despite his rants against Jews. “He was searching for answers within his Islamic faith,” said his lawyer, Clinton W. Calhoun III, who has appealed his conviction. “And this informant, I think, twisted that search in a really pretty awful way, sort of misdirected Cromitie in his search and turned him towards violence.”
THE informer, Shahed Hussain, had been charged with fraud, but avoided prison and deportation by working undercover in another investigation. He was being paid by the F.B.I. to pose as a wealthy Pakistani with ties to Jaish-e-Mohammed, a terrorist group that Mr. Cromitie apparently had never heard of before they met by chance in the parking lot of a mosque.
“Brother, did you ever try to do anything for the cause of Islam?” Mr. Hussain asked at one point.
“O.K., brother,” Mr. Cromitie replied warily, “where you going with this, brother?”
Two days later, the informer told him, “Allah has more work for you to do,” and added, “Revelation is going to come in your dreams that you have to do this thing, O.K.?” About 15 minutes later, Mr. Hussain proposed the idea of using missiles, saying he could get them in a container from China. Mr. Cromitie laughed.
Reading hundreds of pages of transcripts of the recorded conversations is like looking at the inkblots of a Rorschach test. Patterns of willingness and hesitation overlap and merge. “I don’t want anyone to get hurt,” Mr. Cromitie said, and then explained that he meant women and children. “I don’t care if it’s a whole synagogue of men.” It took 11 months of meandering discussion and a promise of $250,000 to lead him, with three co-conspirators he recruited, to plant fake bombs at two Riverdale synagogues.
“Only the government could have made a ‘terrorist’ out of Mr. Cromitie, whose buffoonery is positively Shakespearean in its scope,” said Judge Colleen McMahon, sentencing him to 25 years. She branded it a “fantasy terror operation” but called his attempt “beyond despicable” and rejected his claim of entrapment.
The judge’s statement was unusual, but Mr. Cromitie’s characteristics were not. His incompetence and ambivalence could be found among other aspiring terrorists whose grandiose plans were nurtured by law enforcement. They included men who wanted to attack fuel lines at Kennedy International Airport; destroy the Sears Tower (now Willis Tower) in Chicago; carry out a suicide bombing near Tampa Bay, Fla., and bomb subways in New York and Washington. Of the 22 most frightening plans for attacks since 9/11 on American soil, 14 were developed in sting operations.
Another New York City subway plot, which recently went to trial, needed no help from government. Nor did a bombing attempt in Times Square, the abortive underwear bombing in a jetliner over Detroit, a planned attack on Fort Dix, N.J., and several smaller efforts. Some threats are real, others less so. In terrorism, it’s not easy to tell the difference.
David K. Shipler is the author of “Rights at Risk: The Limits of Liberty in Modern America.”

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