Thursday, May 10, 2007

Secret Agents from the War on Crime

The alleged plot by a small group of Muslim men to attack soldiers at Fort Dix shares some disturbing features with virtually all of the other examples of domestic terror cells exposed by the Federal government since the War on Terror began, and its not the violence of their plots. The supposed terror cells exposed since 9/11, look to all appearances like rank amateurs. Compare the men allegedly involved in a Fort Dix plot to the 9/11 terrorists. The latter were educated men of some sophistication, financed by generous wire transfers, who worked relentlessly and largely silently across a narrow period of time to weave together a complex plot requiring astonishing coordination and discipline. The former appear to be unevenly educated men of working class backgrounds and trajectories, who meander through wordy discussions about possible acts of terror like characters in a Don DeLillo novel (who sometimes are terrorists) or a jihadi version of Seinfeld. The American suspects also differ from Britain’s suspected terror cells. The latter were making rapid progress toward launching actual attacks (like the one launched on July 7, 2005). The former seem barely beyond the stage of fantasy.

There may be a common cause to these differences, i.e., the heavy American reliance on professional informers who typically have strong personal incentives to get their suspects to say and do incriminating things, and who have sophisticated legal knowledge of just what sound bytes and actions they need. This reliance is driven by many things, including the ham handed way American security forces mistreated domestic Muslims after 9/11, but the most important is the deeply ingrained effects of the war on crime on American governance generally (what I call governing through crime) and now on the war on terror. One of the most important features of the American war on crime was the heavy reliance on informers to make the largely futile drug war work. After all, unlike real crime, drug dealing mostly involves cooperative relationships between people who want to buy and sell the stuff and who have few incentives to call the police. Investigation therefore requires professional moles who have the street credibility to get inside drug deals, but the incentives to work for the police (a very unattractive subset of the population by all accounts). These informants generated untold numbers of wrongfully convicted Americans, many of who still probably languish in prison (we’ll never know because of the absence of DNA type evidence, but the nightmare of Tulia Texas where scores of people were sent to prison by just one such informant, is a case study in just what can happen).

The current reporting on the Fort Dix plot (read David Kocieniewski’s article in today’s New York Times) shows plentiful signs of having been heavily distorted by professional informants. Compared to the plotters, the informants presented themselves as more sophisticated and more committed to escalating the plot. The government will eventually be forced to turn over far more of the tapes and notes of the informants than they have so far. But there is no guarantee that this will allow the media to expose whether this plot was cooked. Informants are not required to make full recordings of their activities or to take comprehensive notes. More important, the federal criminal code now bristles with so many security crimes requiring minimal conduct that juries may well be led into convicting them regardless of how credible it is that they would have attacked Fort Dix without government prodding.

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