Terror informant misused?
Lawyers question whether FBI's plant went too far
By Matt King | May 24, 2009
The use of confidential informants to bust alleged homegrown terror rings is part of a campaign intended more to promote the war on terror than to protect citizens, say lawyers who have defended the accused in such cases.
"This is the law enforcement equivalent of an exhibition game," Albany lawyer Terence Kindlon said. "They're creating a crime and then solving it."
Kindlon represented Yassin Aref, an imam sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2007 in a scheme to launder money for an informant who claimed he was part of a plot to assassinate a Pakistini government official in New York.
The informant — Aref knew him as Malik — is named Shahed Hussain, who has worked for federal agents since 2003, when he was convicted in a fraud scheme involving motor vehicle documents in Albany, according to court records.
Based on the criminal complaint against James Cromitie, David Williams, Onta Williams and Laguerre Payen, Kindlon says the informant in the Albany case is the same one involved in the case of the four Newburgh men.
"These were four very vulnerable dimwits who were susceptible to a very sophisticated, extremely devious, extraordinarily clever and dishonest snake in the grass," he said. "So crooked is this Malik character I don't trust him as far as I can throw my car."
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Southern District of New York would not comment on the informant's identity. A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington also would not comment on the case but said informants follow "strict guidelines" to avoid entrapping suspects.
"We stay well away from that line and make sure every action is legal," Dean Boyd said.
Arnold Bogis, a research fellow at the Belfer Center at Harvard University, said informants are justified as long as their role is not simply to foment the "musings of angry, disaffected people."
An imam at a Newburgh mosque has accused the confidential informant of "prompting, prompting, prompting" the four alleged plotters into the attacks with his talk of jihad and fighting.
Lawyers concede actions by the FBI don't meet the legal burden of entrapment, but say they blur ethical lines by overtly encouraging their targets to participate in plots hatched by the informants.
"As soon as you introduce an aggressive informant into the situation you don't have the ability to understand what the defendants' intent was going to be," said New Jersey lawyer Michael Huff, who defended one of five men sentenced in April for plotting to attack Fort Dix.
"When you find people who feel disenfranchised and looking to blame their problems on someone, they're easily led."
The Newburgh men are uneducated, with sad-sack histories of drug abuse, mental illness and incarceration.
"You take these sacrificial lambs, they can't find Afghanistan on a map. They probably can't find Newburgh on a map," Kindlon said. "These are pathetic people from the underclass, the law enforcement equivalent of cannon fodder."
Huff said the informant approach would be fine if infiltrators merely observed and didn't take leadership roles in plots.
But he doesn't expect the policy to change because "the investigation would then go on forever. All they want to know is what they need to convict these guys at trial."
And the approach has worked.
Earlier this month, five men were convicted in Miami for plotting to blow up the Sears Tower. The government pressed the case through two hung juries before finally winning.