NEW YORK — It usually starts with a snitch and a sting operation, followed by a great deal of publicity and controversy.
Case in point: Four Muslim men charged last week with plotting to blow up synagogues and military planes. The informant is a convicted felon and Pakistani immigrant who turned snitch seven years ago to avoid deportation. This wasn't his first foray into undercover work for federal authorities.
With considerable fanfare, a steady stream of terrorism busts has been announced by the FBI since Sept. 11, 2001. In most cases, accusations soon followed that the stings were overblown operations that entrapped hapless ne'er-do-wells. Federal authorities say such arrests save lives.
What happens to these cases after the media spotlight fades and the noise dies down? And are the snitches involved reliable?
"Most of these guys don't get tried," said security analyst Bruce Schneier. "These are not criminal masterminds, they're idiots. There's huge fanfares at the arrest, and then it dies off."
The New York men arrested last week were ex-convicts down on their luck. In federal court, one admitted that he'd recently gotten stoned. "I smoke it regularly," he told the judge. Not to worry, he added, "I understand everything you are saying."
James Cromitie, David Williams, Onta Williams and Laguerre Payen were calm in court Thursday with shackled hands. They entered no pleas and were ordered held without bail. If convicted, they face life imprisonment.
Federal authorities are proud of their work, saying agents have prevented many attacks by nipping them in the bud. Among the biggest headline grabbers were a plot to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago, an alleged plot to explode underground gas pipes at John F. Kennedy International Airport, and a plot to storm the Fort Dix military base in New Jersey.
However, court statistics show that most domestic terrorism cases never make it to trial.
A trail of conspiracies
According to informant Shahed Hussain, who also helped the FBI in 2004 by posing as an arms dealer, he met the men arrested last week at a local mosque.
Cromitie, the alleged mastermind, told Hussain he hated Jews and "would like to get a synagogue," according to the complaint.
Hussain drove the men to scout targets and supplied them with weapons and explosive devices that, unknown to the accused, were fake.
"Where he goes, conspiracies blossom," said attorney Terence L. Kindlon, who represents one of two men sentenced to 15 years in prison based on Hussain's help in a 2004 case involving money laundering charges for a fictitious terror plot.
"We are not entrapping or encouraging anyone to commit a crime," said Joseph Demarest, head of New York's FBI office. "We merely facilitated their wishes."
Assistant U.S. attorney Eric Snyder said: "It's hard to envision a more chilling plot."
Which is almost exactly what then-U.S. Attorney Roslynn Mauskopf said in 2007 when announcing the bust of an alleged plan to blow up gas lines at JFK airport. Russell Defrietas — described by neighbors as a man who slept in his car and couldn't read or write — was arrested with three others on the work of an FBI informant, a twice-convicted drug dealer.
Mauskopf called it "one of the most chilling plots imaginable." Two years later, Defrietas, whom his attorney says is "mentally challenged," and three others sit in a Brooklyn jail. No trial date has been set.
As in last week's case, there was "a very active role played by a confidential informant," said attorney Daniel Noble, who represents Abdel Nur, a co-defendant in the JFK case. "There was never anything there," he said. "The question is whether anything would have happened without the informant."
That point was echoed by Schneier, of security firm BT Group. "Is the FBI manufacturing terrorists? What would happen if they were left on their own? They fall into the hands of an FBI informant, and then they get helped and egged on."
In Detroit, a case against four men once hailed as a major victory instead became a major embarrassment. In 2004, a federal judge threw out terrorism charges against two convicted men following widespread prosecutorial misconduct and questionable information from a self-described scam artist who once lived with the defendants and was trying to get a prison sentence reduced. One man was eventually deported and the fourth was acquitted.
Videotapes seized at the men's home were claimed to be terror surveillance shots. According to trial testimony, they were vacation videos taken at tourist spots including Disneyland.
But entrapment claims and problem informants are not enough to prevent convictions and strong punishments.
Five foreign-born men were convicted in December of conspiracy to kill U.S. soldiers in the Fort Dix case. Four were sentenced to life in prison. The fifth was sentenced to 33 years. Their trials relied heavily on two paid FBI informants who secretly recorded meetings and telephone calls during a 15-month operation and helped the men meet an arms dealer.
During the investigation, one of the men called a Philadelphia police officer saying he had been approached by someone who was pressuring him to obtain a map of Fort Dix, and he suspected it was terrorist-related.
That didn't hold much sway with jurors.
Acting U.S. Attorney Ralph Marra said he hoped the sentences served as a warning.
"We're going to catch you and hopefully catch you before you do it," he said. "And we're going to punish you severely."