Privacy SOS

Notches in Their Belt

by Nancy Murray, Director of Public Education, ACLUm
“Informer’s Role in Terror Case is Said to Have Deterred FBI” proclaims the New York Times in an article outlining reasons why the NYPD, and not the FBI, was bringing terrorism charges against “lone wolf” suspect Jose Pimentel. The article cites the Bureau’s concern “that the informer might have played too active a role” in the alleged bomb plot as well as the fact that the impoverished young man appeared to be mentally unstable as reasons for its decision not to consider Pimentel a serious threat.  
Some months earlier, the FBI had also declined to get involved when NYPD undercover agents provided two men – one of whom had reportedly been in a psychiatric hospital on more than 20 occasions – with handguns, ammunition and a dud hand grenade, and then with great fanfare announced the arrest of two Muslims who “wanted to kill Jews.”     
Could it be that after years of using paid FBI informants to infiltrate groups, lure often clueless participants with promises of wealth and supply them with plots and weapons, the FBI is mending its ways?  
That doesn’t seem likely given the case of a Northeastern University graduate, Rezwan Ferdaus, who was arrested in September and accused of planning to fly remote controlled model planes laden with explosives into the US Capitol building and Pentagon. At his detention hearing in Worcester earlier this month, it was alleged that undercover FBI agents who knew he had severe mental problems provided all the guns, plastic explosives and storage facilities for the plot. The informant they hired to go into a Worcester mosque and spend months reaching out to Ferdaus was said to be a heroin addict who committed crimes while on the FBI’s payroll.
A more plausible explanation for the FBI’s reluctance to seek Pimentel’s prosecution in federal court is turf rivalry and the opportunity offered by NYPD overreaching to make the case that the Bureau plays by the rules.  
In an August expose, The Associated Press revealed that the New York Police Department with its $4.5 billion annual budget and the help of the CIA had set up a vast intelligence program that staged undercover operations and conducted surveillance not just in New York City, but in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts and also operated abroad. It had a secret squad known as the Demographic Unit which would infiltrate Muslim neighborhoods and hang out in cafes, ethnic bookstores, restaurants, mosques and on street corners observing the community, listening for “radical” statements and keeping tabs on who bought “radical” books and what websites people visited. Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said this kind of surveillance gives police a crucial head start in the event of a terrorist attack.
FBI General Counsel Valerie Caproni told The Associated Press that the FBI, by contrast, respects “core constitutional rights” and would not send informants into mosques and ethnic neighborhoods to do mass surveillance. But in October, the ACLU made public the results of FOIA litigation revealing that the FBI had been doing racial profiling on an ”industrial scale” as it used Census data to “map” ethnic communities based on race, religion, national origin and ethnicity to  know where to send its agents and informants.
The FBI’s track record on engineering “fake plots” nationwide has recently received international attention. Regardless of General Counsel Caproni’s claims, Bureau’s methods do not appear very different from those employed by the NYPD. The tension between them – which was being scrutinized by a Washington grand jury in the summer – appears to have more to do with the matter of who gets to call the shots and take the credit than with disagreements over methods.  
Alicia McWilliams is the aunt of David Williams, one of the “Newburgh Four” sentenced to a mandatory 25 years in prison for a ‘terrorist’ plot which even the judge said was totally concocted by the FBI. Her words sum up the extent to which our nation has lost the plot in its multi-billion dollar pursuit of ‘terrorist suspects’:
The government spent millions of taxpayers dollars on the informant’s salary, perks, luxury cars, surveillance equipment, fake weaponry, helicopters, and the dramatic trial….And the benefits? I may be biased, but I haven’t met many people who can say with a straight face that our nation is safer from terrorism as a result of all of this. I also sometimes wonder, what good might those resources have done if they’d been invested in our communities instead?… What I can't understand is spending millions of dollars to set David and the others up, and then to put them in prison for life, which will also cost millions of dollars. Just so the government can have another notch on its belt in the ‘war on terror’?
To learn more about the targeting of Muslims in the US, click here.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.