The Star Ledger
Friday, June 8, 2007
Some of the more spectacular anti-terrorism busts of the last few months have these elements in common:
Announcements laced with scary, end-of the-world warnings — usually cast in the secretly taped words of the alleged plotters — and crowds of law enforcement suits huddled close together so they all can get inside the TV camera lens as they warn of what might have been if they hadn’t been so diligent.
A collection of unlikely suspects, ranging from Haitian stoners in Florida to a Central Jersey pizza deliveryman to a barely literate former airport employee.
Almost unbelievable targets and aspirations, especially given the obviously limited capabilities of the suspects — blowing up the Sears Tower, attacking the Fort Dix Army base, and blowing up jet fuel flowing into JFK airport while taking major parts of Long Island and New Jersey with it.
Barely uttered and almost reluctant concessions to reporters that the plots either were nowhere near fruition or were, as in the case of the alleged JFK plot — as one law enforcement officer put it — “not technically possible.”
Finally — informants.
This might be the most troubling because informants — long before 9/11 and ever since — are notoriously unreliable.
Worse than that, even a casual reading of the stories of these plots suggests informants were doing more than informing. They were part of the plans. Indeed, they tended to be the brightest lights in the dim constellations of would-be attackers.
Raising at least the possibility that parts of the scripts for these Doomsday scenarios were written, not by nefarious evil-doers, but by unknown informants either on the federal payroll or seeking reductions in pending criminal sentences, or both.
“Always look at two things about informants,” says an expert on the subject. “Motivation and the amount of control exercised by their handlers.”
Clifford Zimmerman, who grew up in Cherry Hill and was graduated from Rutgers Law School, has written about the use of informants. He is a professor and dean at Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago. One of his essays was included in “Wrongly Convicted,” published by the Rutgers University Press.
Zimmerman says informants looking for a lot of money or a sharp reduction in their sentences “often will tell prosecutors whatever those prosecutors want to hear.” Many death row inmates ultimately found innocent ended up down the hall from the death chamber because of an informant eager to make nice to a prosecutor.
The use of informants, Zimmerman has written, dates back to ancient Greece and Rome. Slaves were freed if they turned in their masters to the authorities. Even then, they had incentives for making stuff up.
Modern, anti-terrorism informants are not simply spies. They play roles. Sell gear to alleged plotters. Help take pictures of targets. Become part of the plot itself. Brains behind the willing brawn of people who might want to hurt us but don’t know how.
“You have to look at exactly what role they played,” says Zimmerman, pointing out that one informant may actually have provided bomb-making equipment to plotters involved in the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993.
Sure. I know. A small group of 19 hijackers pulled off 9/11. But read Terry McDermott’s “Perfect Soldiers,” a detailed account of the attackers’ backgrounds. They were not clueless saps like the motley Miami crew who dreamed of their own kingdom while they hung around a headquarters provided by the FBI and puffed away on Tijuana gold.
That’s one of the problems with these highly publicized terrorism busts. They create the false impression that truly dangerous plots have been thwarted, but we really don’t have any way of evaluating the seriousness of the threats.
“I don’t know why we should feel safer when we consider how informants were used,” says Zimmerman. “Even when the issue is very important, as important as terrorism, we have to evaluate what happened critically, looking at the objective facts, discounting subjective claims.”
We also know resources have been spent tracking these plots, resources that might be devoted to more imminent dangers. And, while diligence is always essential, unreasonable fear could lead us to live in a place we no longer recognize as America.
No one can blame the feds for wanting to look as alert as possible. They were blamed by the 9/11 Commission for a “failure of imagination” in not preventing the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks.
But, perhaps, they might now be indulging our worst, our most fearful, imaginings, a little too much.