Major Terror Ring Or 'Al Qaeda Lite'?

FBI agents move through the Liberty City area in Miami Thursday, June 22, 2006. Seven people were arrested Thursday in connection with the early stages of a plot to attack Chicago's Sears Tower and other buildings in the U.S., including the FBI office here, a federal law enforcement official said.
AP Photo/Peter Andrew Bosch
Attorney Andrew Cohen analyzes legal issues for CBS News and

The same people who told us that Zacarias Moussaoui was the 20th hijacker and that Jose Padilla was building a radiological bomb now are telling us that they've foiled a legitimate terror plot to take down the Sears Tower in Chicago. Maybe yes. Maybe no. I'll wait for the trial to decide.

In the meantime, please forgive me my skepticism amid all the triumphant trumpets of glee and satisfaction. This administration has on too many occasions promised much more than it ultimately would and could deliver when it comes to these terror cases.

The federal indictment Friday of seven Miami men is extraordinary for what it does not contain. It does not contain allegations that the men ever met with a genuine al Qaeda operative — just an informant playing the role for the government. It does not contain allegations that the men ever purchased any munitions or went anywhere near Chicago to case the building. It does not contain allegations that the men had any sort of a specific plan or detailed plot to take down the Sears Tower. The indictment is only 11 pages long. Read it yourself and decide whether the feds have broken up al Qaeda Lite or just the Gang that Couldn't Shoot Straight.

What does the indictment say? It says that the men said they wanted to do harm to America. It says that they asked the "al Qaeda representative" (which, quotation marks and all, is how the indictment refers to the guy who infiltrated the group and then ratted them out) for "materials and equipment" needed in order to wage jihad, including "radios, binoculars, bullet proof vests, firearms, vehicles, and $50,000 cash." It says the men asked for and obtained from the al Qaeda representative "military boots" and a "digital video camera" as part of their training, preparation and reconnaissance. You read that correctly. We have a highly touted federal terrorism indictment based in part on the transfer of boots from an informant to a group of suspects.

The indictment contains an allegation that the men discussed a plot to bomb an FBI building in Florida. But all it says about the Sears Tower is that the leader of the group, a fellow named Narseal Batiste, "outlined his mission to wage war against the United States government from within, using an army of his own 'soldiers' to assist in destroying" the Chicago landmark. I'm not sure that is going to be specific or detailed enough, ultimately, for this case to be known forevermore as the "Sears Tower" case the way the arrest of Ahmed Ressam at the Canadian border gave rise to the foiling of the "Millennium Plot."

The most interesting allegation of the indictment comes at Paragraph 26, wherein the feds concede that on or about May 24, 2006, Batiste "told the 'al Qaeda representative' that he was experiencing delays because of various problems within his organization but that he wanted to continue his mission and maintain his relationship with al Qaeda."

So we now know that the "Miami Seven," as they surely will be called, already were disintegrating as a group even before they all were indicted. As the Moussaoui trial taught us, real al Qaeda creeps never give up, never give in and certainly never have to ask for help in getting footwear.

None of this means that it isn't a good thing that the feds finally sprang their trap and corralled this group. Whether the seven ultimately are convicted or not, the indictment itself sends a message to other grassroots terrorists out there that they can get in just as much trouble as the big boys if they start talking about blowing up buildings. The Justice Department and the White House clearly have made it a priority to bring these sorts of cases early, before any really dangerous "overt acts" are performed. In fact, Deputy U.S. Attorney General Paul McNulty Friday talked about the government's decision to "prevent by prosecution."

There's nothing wrong with that at all. It's the hype I'm not crazy about. Nothing in the four corners of the indictment convinces me that these guys were legitimate terrorist wannabes as opposed to a bunch of angry bozos looking lazily for al Qaeda to hook them up with all sorts of goodies. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if one of the defense themes here is that the men were conspiring against the "al Qaeda representative" to cheat him out of those supplies and cash they had asked for. And you can hear the defense attorneys now telling the judge and jury that their clients were merely expressing their hostility toward America, protected speech under the First Amendment, and taking photographs of police buildings (perhaps a crime, but not a major one).

Why the cynicism? Because I've been down this road before. I remember when the feds charged John Lindh with conspiracy to commit murder — even though he was sitting trapped in a filthy prison in Mazar-i-Sharif the middle of a war between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance when CIA agent Johnny Michael Spann was murdered by thugs. I remember when the feds tried to sell us on the notion that Moussaoui was the 20th hijacker long after they knew he wasn't. I remember when the government told us that Yaser Esam Hamdi was so valuable as an intelligence asset and so dangerous as a terrorist that he had to be held incommunicado and without charges as an "enemy combatant" until the feds lost a round in court and promptly set him free.

I remember the hullabaloo about the prosecution of terror suspects in Michigan that later imploded amid allegations of prosecutorial misconduct (the prosecutors failed to turn over exculpatory evidence). And, of course, I will never forget John Ashcroft, then-attorney general, interrupting a visit to Russia to jump on a satellite feed to warn us all back home that Padilla was a would-be "dirty bomber." Today, Padilla is just a regular old terror defendant in a case his Miami judge this week called "light on facts."

Because I remember these things, and because they contain the common themes of over-hyping and over-dramatization that are possible here, I'm going to wait a bit before I declare this latest indictment a major victory in the war on terrorism. I suggest you do so as well.