Few Clear Wins in U.S. Anti-Terror Cases
Monday, April 21, 2008
When seven ragtag men in a Miami religious sect were indicted in 2006 for their role in a bizarre plot to blow up the FBI Miami office and Chicago's Sears Tower, then- Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales said the case represented "a new brand of terrorism" among homegrown gangs that "may prove to be as dangerous as groups like al-Qaeda."
Justice Department officials used similar rhetoric in a 2003 case against a Tampa-area man and his associates who allegedly supported a reign of terror by a violent Palestinian group. The officials did so again in a 2004 case involving a Dallas charity known as the Holy Land Foundation, which they said provided "blood money" to finance overseas suicide bombings.
But juries in all three cases saw things differently than the government's national security team. In the most recent disappointment for federal prosecutors, a jury last week did not reach a verdict in the Miami case for the second time. In the Holy Land case, one defendant was cleared of the charges and jurors deadlocked on charges against the others. After 12 days of deliberation, jurors in the Tampa case acquitted two men and could not agree on the charges against the main defendant.
The department's domestic terrorism record to date -- no new attacks, but few blockbuster convictions and some high-profile hung juries or acquittals -- has provoked criticism of its early strategy for going after homegrown terrorist cells and the people who fund plots well before deadly events occur.
Jurors appear to be particularly troubled by a controversial element in the Miami case, part of several other early prosecutions, in which FBI informants encouraged others to perform acts they otherwise may not have done.
This week, federal prosecutors in Miami will announce whether they will seek to try the defendants for the third time. The government's incentive to do so is powerful: Two years ago, it intended the case to be a model for intervention against potential terrorists before they acquire the weapons and insight needed to act.
Independent commissions have urged the FBI to become more aggressive at detecting threats and neutralizing them before they explode. But what emerged was an approach where investigators sometimes acted very early, charging conspiracies to commit minor crimes or immigration and tax violations as a way to preempt potential threats, while avoiding the disclosure of sensitive intelligence.
Justice Department officials say they are pleased to have won a few high-profile convictions as well as some little-noticed guilty pleas. Increasingly, authorities say, their current goal is broader than a courtroom victory: It is collecting enough intelligence to eradicate a threat by using informants, wiretaps and other tools to get as clear a picture as possible .
"Our mission is not just to disrupt an isolated plot, but to thoroughly dismantle the entire network that supports it," FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III told an audience this month.
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The Miami case revolved around a part-time contractor who gathered a loose band of men in a rented room in a downscale neighborhood known as Liberty City. The group, distantly affiliated with the Moorish Science Temple religion, talked about Muhammad, Jesus, Confucius and Buddha, and also practiced martial arts.
Its leader, Narseal Batiste, told his Yemenese grocer in October 2005 that he wanted to conduct jihad to overthrow the U.S. government. The grocer, an FBI informant who himself had a criminal record, told the bureau. The FBI then employed a second informant, this one an Arab from overseas who depicted himself as a representative of Osama bin Laden.