The Justice Department on Wednesday issued a press release trumpeting its latest success in disrupting a domestic terrorism plot, announcing that “the Joint Terrorism Task Force has arrested a Cincinnati-area man for a plot to attack the U.S. Capitol and kill government officials.” The alleged would-be terrorist is 20-year-old Christopher Cornell (above), who is unemployed, lives at home, spends most of his time playing video games in his bedroom, still addresses his mother as “Mommy” and regards his cat as his best friend; he was described as “a typical student” and “quiet but not overly reserved” by the principal of the local high school he graduated in 2012.
The affidavit filed by an FBI investigative agent alleges Cornell had “posted comments and information supportive of [ISIS] through Twitter accounts.” The FBI learned about Cornell from an unnamed informant who, as the FBI put it, “began cooperating with the FBI in order to obtain favorable treatment with respect to his criminal exposure on an unrelated case.” Acting under the FBI’s direction, the informant arranged two in-person meetings with Cornell where they allegedly discussed an attack on the Capitol, and the FBI says it arrested Cornell to prevent him from carrying out the attack.
Family members say Cornell converted to Islam just six months ago and claimed he began attending a small local mosque. Yet The Cincinnati Enquirer could not find a single person at that mosque who had ever seen him before, and noted that a young, white, recent convert would have been quite conspicuous at a mosque largely populated by “immigrants from West Africa,” many of whom “speak little or no English.”
The DOJ’s press release predictably generated an avalanche of scary media headlines hailing the FBI. CNN: “FBI says plot to attack U.S. Capitol was ready to go.” MSNBC: “US terror plot foiled by FBI arrest of Ohio man.” Wall St. Journal: “Ohio Man Charged With Plotting ISIS-Inspired Attack on U.S. Capitol.”
Just as predictably, political officials instantly exploited the news to justify their powers of domestic surveillance. House Speaker John Boehner claimed yesterday that “the National Security Agency’s snooping powers helped stop a plot to attack the Capitol and that his colleagues need to keep that in mind as they debate whether to renew the law that allows the government to collect bulk information from its citizens.” He warned: “We live in a dangerous country, and we get reminded every week of the dangers that are out there.”
The known facts from this latest case seem to fit well within a now-familiar FBI pattern whereby the agency does not disrupt planned domestic terror attacks but rather creates them, then publicly praises itself for stopping its own plots.
First, they target a Muslim: not due to any evidence of intent or capability to engage in terrorism, but rather for the “radical” political views he expresses. In most cases, the Muslim targeted by the FBI is a very young (late teens, early 20s), adrift, unemployed loner who has shown no signs of mastering basic life functions, let alone carrying out a serious terror attack, and has no known involvement with actual terrorist groups.
They then find another Muslim who is highly motivated to help disrupt a “terror plot”: either because they’re being paid substantial sums of money by the FBI or because (as appears to be the case here) they are charged with some unrelated crime and are desperate to please the FBI in exchange for leniency (or both). The FBI then gives the informant a detailed attack plan, and sometimes even the money and other instruments to carry it out, and the informant then shares all of that with the target. Typically, the informant also induces, lures, cajoles, and persuades the target to agree to carry out the FBI-designed plot. In some instances where the target refuses to go along, they have their informant offer huge cash inducements to the impoverished target.
Once they finally get the target to agree, the FBI swoops in at the last minute, arrests the target, issues a press release praising themselves for disrupting a dangerous attack (which it conceived of, funded, and recruited the operatives for), and the DOJ and federal judges send their target to prison for years or even decades (where they are kept in special GITMO-like units). Subservient U.S. courts uphold the charges by applying such a broad and permissive interpretation of “entrapment” that it could almost never be successfully invoked. As AP noted last night, “defense arguments have repeatedly failed with judges, and the stings have led to many convictions.”
Consider the truly remarkable (yet not aberrational) 2011 prosecution of James Cromitie, an impoverished African-American Muslim convert who had expressed anti-Semitic views but, at the age of 45, had never evinced any inclination to participate in a violent attack. For eight months, the FBI used an informant – one who was on the hook for another crime and whom the FBI was paying – to try to persuade Cromitie to agree to join a terror plot which the FBI had concocted. And for eight months, he adamantly refused. Only when they dangled a payment of $250,000 in front of him right as he lost his job did he finally assent, causing the FBI to arrest him. The DOJ trumpeted the case as a major terrorism arrest, obtained a prosecution and sent him to prison for 25 years.
The federal judge presiding over his case, Colleen McMahon, repeatedly lambasted the government for wholly manufacturing the plot. When sentencing him to decades in prison, she said Cromitie “was incapable of committing an act of terrorism on his own,” and that it was the FBI which “created acts of terrorism out of his fantasies of bravado and bigotry, and then made those fantasies come true.” She added: “only the government could have made a terrorist out of Mr. Cromitie, whose buffoonery is positively Shakespearean in scope.”
In her written ruling upholding the conviction, Judge McMahon noted that Cromitie “had successfully resisted going too far for eight months,” and agreed only after “the Government dangled what had to be almost irresistible temptation in front of an impoverished man from what I have come (after literally dozens of cases) to view as the saddest and most dysfunctional community in the Southern District of New York.” It was the FBI’s own informant, she wrote, who “was the prime mover and instigator of all the criminal activity that occurred.” She then wrote (emphasis added):
As it turns out, the Government did absolutely everything that the defense predicted in its previous motion to dismiss the indictment. The Government indisputably “manufactured” the crimes of which defendants stand convicted. The Government invented all of the details of the scheme – many of them, such as the trip to Connecticut and the inclusion of Stewart AFB as a target, for specific legal purposes of which the defendants could not possibly have been aware (the former gave rise to federal jurisdiction and the latter mandated a twenty-five year minimum sentence). The Government selected the targets. The Government designed and built the phony ordnance that the defendants planted (or planned to plant) at Government-selected targets. The Government provided every item used in the plot: cameras, cell phones, cars, maps and even a gun. The Government did all the driving (as none of the defendants had a car or a driver’s license). The Government funded the entire project. And the Government, through its agent, offered the defendants large sums of money, contingent on their participation in the heinous scheme.
Additionally, before deciding that the defendants (particularly Cromitie, who was in their sights for nine months) presented any real danger, the Government appears to have done minimal due diligence, relying instead on reports from its Confidential Informant, who passed on information about Cromitie information that could easily have been verified (or not verified, since much of it was untrue), but that no one thought it necessary to check before offering a jihadist opportunity to a man who had no contact with any extremist groups and no history of anything other than drug crimes.
On another occasion, Judge McMahon wrote: “There is not the slightest doubt in my mind that James Cromitie could never have dreamed up the scenario in which he actually became involved. And if by some chance he had, he would not have had the slightest idea how to make it happen.” She added that while “Cromitie, who was desperately poor, accepted meals and rent money from [the informant], he repeatedly backed away from his violent statements when it came time to act on them,” and that “only when the offers became outrageously high–and when Cromitie was particularly vulnerable to them, because he had lost his job–did he finally succumb.”
This is pre-emptory prosecution: targeting citizens not for their criminal behavior but for their political views. It’s an attempt by the U.S. Government to anticipate who will become a criminal at some point in the future based on their expressed political opinions – not unlike the dystopian premise of Minority Report – and then exploiting the FBI’s vast financial, organizational, and even psychological resources, along with the individuals’ vulnerabilities, to make it happen.
In 2005, federal appellate judge A. Wallace Tashima – the first Japanese-American appointed to the federal bench, who was imprisoned in an U.S. internment camp – vehemently dissented from one of the worst such prosecutions and condemned these FBI cases as “the unsettling and untoward consequences of the government’s use of anticipatory prosecution as a weapon in the ‘war on terrorism.’”
There are countless similar cases where the FBI triumphantly disrupts its own plots, causing people to be imprisoned as terrorists who would not and could not have acted on their own. Trevor Aaronson has comprehensively covered what amounts to the FBI’s own domestic terror network, and has reported that “nearly half [of all DOJ terrorism] prosecutions involved the use of informants, many of them incentivized by money (operatives can be paid as much as $100,000 per assignment) or the need to work off criminal or immigration violation.” He documents “49 [terrorism] defendants [who] participated in plots led by an agent provocateur—an FBI operative instigating terrorist action.” In 2012, Petra Bartosiewicz in The Nation reviewed the post-9/11 body of terrorism cases and concluded:
Nearly every major post-9/11 terrorism-related prosecution has involved a sting operation, at the center of which is a government informant. In these cases, the informants — who work for money or are seeking leniency on criminal charges of their own — have crossed the line from merely observing potential criminal behavior to encouraging and assisting people to participate in plots that are largely scripted by the FBI itself. Under the FBI’s guiding hand, the informants provide the weapons, suggest the targets and even initiate the inflammatory political rhetoric that later elevates the charges to the level of terrorism.
The U.S. Government has been aggressively pressuring its allies to adopt the same “sting” tactics against their own Muslim citizens (and like most War on Terror abuses, this practice is now fully seeping into non-terrorism domestic law: in a drug smuggling prosecution last year, a federal judge condemned the Drug Enforcement Agency for luring someone into smuggling cocaine, saying that “the government’s investigation deployed techniques that generated a wholly new crime for the sake of pressing criminal charges against” the defendant).
Many of the key facts in this latest case are still unknown, but there are ample reasons to treat this case with substantial skepticism. Though he had brushes with the law as a minor arguably indicative of anger issues, the 20-year-old Cornell had no history of engaging in politically-motivated violence (he disrupted a local 9/11 memorial ceremony last year by yelling a 9/11 Truth slogan, but was not arrested). There is no evidence he had any contact with any overseas or domestic terrorist operatives (the informant vaguely claims that Cornell claims he “had been in contact with persons overseas” but ultimately told the informant that “he did not think he would receive specific authorization to conduct a terrorist attack in the United States”).
Cornell’s father accused the FBI of responsibility for the plot, saying of his son: “He’s a mommy’s boy. His best friend is his cat Mikey. He still calls his mother ‘Mommy.’” His father said that “he might be 20, but he was more like a 16-year-old kid who never left the house.” He added that his son had only $1,200 in his bank account, and that the money to purchase guns could only have come from the FBI. It was the FBI, he said, who were “taking him somewhere, and they were filling his head with a lot of this garbage.”
The mosque with which Cornell was supposedly associated is itself tiny, a non-profit that reported a meager $115,000 in revenue last year. It has no history of producing terrorism suspects or violent radicals.
Whatever else is true, a huge dose of scrutiny and skepticism should be applied to the FBI’s claims. Media organizations certainly should not be trumpeting this as some dangerous terror plot from which the FBI heroically saved us all, nor telling their viewers that the FBI “uncovered” a plot that it actually created, nor trying to depict it (as MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki did in the pictured segment) as part of some larger plot of international terror groups, at least not without further evidence (and, just by the way, Mr. Kornacki: Anwar Awlaki was not “the leader of Al Qaeda in Yemen,” no matter how much repeating that false claim might help President Obama, who ordered that U.S. citizen killed with no due process). Nor should politicians like John Boehner be permitted without challenge to claim that this scary plot shows how crucial is the Patriot Act and the NSA domestic spying program in keeping us safe.
Having crazed loners get guns and seek to shoot people is, of course, a threat. But so is allowing the FBI to manufacture terror plots: in the process keeping fear levels about terrorism completely inflated, along with its own surveillance powers and budget. Ohio is a major recipient of homeland security spending: it “has four fusion centers, more than any other state except California, New York and Texas. Ohio also ranks fourth in the nation (tying New York) with four FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTFs).”
Something has to be done to justify all that terrorism spending. For all those law enforcement agents with little to do, why not sit around and manufacture plots to justify those expenditures, giving a boost to their pro-surveillance ideology to boot? Media outlets have a responsibility to investigate the FBI’s claims, not mindlessly repeat them while parading their alarmed faces and scary graphics.
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BY GLENN GREENWALD AND ANDREW FISHMAN @ggreenwald@AndrewDFish 01/16/2015