Operation Entrapment

June 1, 2009

Nicole Colson asks whether the FBI deserves credit for foiling a "terrorist" attack in New York--or for concocting the scheme itself and entrapping four men.

WE'VE HEARD this story before.

A group of men, disaffected, with petty criminal records and/or mental health issues, in need of money and harboring a real or imagined grudge, are approached by an FBI informant. Later, they're arrested for plotting a major "terrorist attack" on U.S. soil. Politicians and prosecutors praise the diligent work of the FBI in standing between us and another attack like the one on 9/11.

That's the story, manufactured for the evening news, complete with footage of arrestees led away by agents. But poke beneath the surface, and you find it's full of holes.

That was true once again, with the arrest on May 20 of four men accused of plotting to bomb two synagogues in the Bronx and shoot down military planes using Stinger missiles at an Air National Guard base in Newburgh, N.Y.

"It's hard to envision a more chilling plot," Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Snyder said in federal court, claiming that the arrests ended a nearly year-long "painstaking investigation."

Initial press reports suggested the men--James Cromitie, David Williams, Onta Williams and Laguerre Payen--were Muslims who wanted to kill Jews and take revenge on the U.S. for the war in Afghanistan. One law enforcement official mistakenly told the New York Times that the men were Arabs.

FBI agents arrested David Williams along with three other men as alleged plotters in a terror attack
FBI agents arrested David Williams along with three other men as alleged plotters in a terror attack (Daniel Shapiro | Splash News)

In reality, none are Arab--one is Haitian and three are U.S.-born. It's unclear whether the men were practicing Muslims. And their motives for allegedly planting what they believed to be explosive devices also remain unknown.

According to the New York Times, Cromitie had told an FBI informant that he wanted to "do something to America" in response to the war. The complaint filed against the men alleges that Cromitie stated "the best target"--the World Trade Center--"was hit already." The men allegedly chose the two synagogues as targets instead, and the FBI informant helped them get what they believed to be explosive devices, but which were incapable of being fired or detonated.

BUT LIKE many other spectacular arrests in "war on terror" cases, the charges against these four men look thin, if not entirely manufactured.

The plot was, according to one federal law enforcement official, "aspirational." In other words, the suspects might have talked about or wanted to do something, but had no weapons or explosives themselves.

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For that, an FBI informant--who allegedly claimed to be an agent of a Pakistani terrorist organization--was there to conveniently provide encouragement and an assurance that weapons could be obtained.

The informant "became a critical member of the men's plot," reported the New York Times, adding, "The full nature and extent of the informant's role in facilitating the plot is unknown. In other cases, defense lawyers have sought to portray these informants as engaging in entrapment, suggesting they had, in effect, provoked and fueled the actions of their clients."

The four men seem unlikely terrorists. All were ex-convicts, with records involving various crimes (mainly drug offenses). None appears to have had any criminal background related to terrorism, nor any ties to terrorist groups, in the U.S. or abroad.

And there are disturbing indications about at least one of the men's mental health. According to the Times, Laguerre Payen was

described as a nervous, quiet sort who took medication for schizophrenia or a bi-polar disorder, was unemployed and living in squalor in Newburgh. His last arrest, in 2002, was for assault, after he drove around the Rockland County village of Monsey, firing a BB gun out of the window--striking two teens--and snatching two purses. A friend who visited Mr. Payen's apartment on Thursday said it contained bottles of urine, and raw chicken on the stovetop.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Payen's own attorney described him in court as "intellectually challenged," and as currently on medication for schizophrenia. When Payen was asked if he understood the court proceedings, he replied: "Sort of."

Onta Williams, meanwhile, has reportedly been a crack cocaine addict since high school, and James Cromitie spent 12 years in prison for selling drugs behind a school--not exactly characteristics of the media's profile of terrorist "masterminds."

None of the men seem to have been active members of the mosque in Newburgh, N.Y., where they first met the FBI informant. In fact, it appears that the informant specifically "trolled" the mosque looking for people to snare in a cooked-up plot.

According to the New York Times, the informant, a Pakistani immigrant, began working for the FBI in 2002 after being arrested on federal identity theft charges and sentenced to five years probation. He seems to have become an informant in exchange for not being deported.

In 2007, he began showing up at the Newburgh mosque, talking about "violence and jihad" to other worshippers. "There was just something fishy about him," Salahuddin Mustafa Muhammad, the mosque's imam, told the Times. Mosque members "believed he was a government agent."

As Robert Dreyfuss commented at the Nation.com: "So a creepy thug buttonholes people at a mosque, foaming at the mouth about violence and jihad? This is law enforcement? Just imagine if someone did this at a local church, or some synagogue."

According to Muhammad, at least one member of the congregation said the informant offered a substantial amount of money to join his "team."

Such an offer may have been especially attractive to one of the alleged plotters, David Williams. Williams was reportedly distraught over the fact that his younger brother, Lord McWilliams, suffers from sarcoidosis and needs a liver transplant, which his family doesn't have the money to pay for.

"My insurance wasn't good enough," Lord McWilliams told the New York Daily News. His brother, he said, wanted money "to speed up the process. Medicaid only goes so far."

According to McWilliams, the FBI informant frequently drove his brother David to visit him in the hospital--and seems to have promised enough money to pay for a transplant. McWilliams said his brother "told me, 'Don't worry, when you go to the doctor, tell them you got money.'"

David Williams' mother, Elizabeth McWilliams, said her older son had told her he would be able to give her a large amount of money on the day after the alleged "terrorist plot" was to have been carried out.

One anonymous law enforcement source told the Daily News that prosecutors would have had to approve any alleged offer of "payment" to Williams from the informant, and that "if the [informant] did this on his own, that could become a problem. A big one."

Rather than the radical Jew-hating terrorists portrayed by law enforcement, the so–called plotters seem more likely to have been down on their luck, facing the difficulties of being ex-cons, alternately mentally ill, easily manipulated and coerced, or desperate for money--and, thus, were lured into potentially committing a crime they ordinarily would not have.

THIS IS by no means the first "terrorism" case to play out in exactly this fashion. In fact, just days before the men were arrested, the government succeeded in securing convictions against five out of six defendants in another so-called "terror" plot--this one to supposedly blow up Chicago's Sears Tower.

In that case, seven men--for the most part, U.S. citizens of Haitian descent or Haitian immigrants who lived in Miami's impoverished Liberty City neighborhood--were arrested in 2006 and accused of providing "material aid" to al-Qaeda and conspiring to blow up buildings.

The government said the men sought support from an undercover FBI agent who posed as an al-Qaeda representative. Their proof? They apparently gave the informant their shoe sizes so he could buy them military boots.

Later, government documents alleged, one of the men gave the informant lists of other items needed for possible attacks: uniforms, binoculars, radios, vehicles, bullet-proof vests, machine guns and $50,000 in cash.

The government also claimed the men conducted "surveillance" of possible targets. But in reality, the group was apparently so disorganized that the government itself provided the surveillance vehicles, as well as the cameras with which the strongest piece of evidence was captured.

Thus, the seven were accused of plotting to carry out a complicated terrorist attack on the Sears Tower, one of the most recognizable landmarks in the U.S., yet authorities admit they had no weapons or explosives, and had never been in contact with al-Qaeda or any other terrorist organization.

In this case as well, one of the defendants claims that the FBI informant promised him money for his struggling construction business and a community outreach program.

It took three years and three separate trials, but earlier this month, prosecutors finally succeeded in securing convictions against five of the original seven (one defendant was acquitted in this trial, and one was acquitted in an earlier trial).

But of course, no one is any safer because of it. In this latest case, as Robert Dreyfuss noted, the men

may have been inclined to violence, and they may have harbored a virulent strain of anti-Semitism. But it seems that the informant whipped up their violent tendencies and their hatred of Jews, cooked up the plot, incited them, arranged their purchase of weapons and then had them busted. To ensure that it made headlines, the creepy informant claimed to be representing a Pakistani extremist group...He wasn't, of course.

It is disgusting and outrageous that the FBI is sending provocateurs into mosques.

The headlines reinforce the very fear that Dick Cheney is trying to stir up. The story strengthens the narrative that the "homeland" is under attack. It's not. As I've written repeatedly, since 9/11, not a single American has even been punched in the nose by an angry Muslim, as far as I can tell. Plot after plot--the destruction of the Brooklyn Bridge! bombing the New York subways! taking down the Sears Tower! bombing the Prudential building in Newark!--proved to be utter nonsense.

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