News over the past week, regarding two undercover FBI informants, one from New Jersey, the other from California illustrate the perils posed by over-the-top informants in cases involving suspected extremists. These diverse, though far from front-page, cases come at a critical time as intelligence analysts are ratcheting up concerns about what exactly increased domestic activity by both far right wing American extremists as well as radical Muslim extremists bode for the future.
Mistrial for Shock Blogger
A mistrial was declared yesterday in Brooklyn in a federal criminal case involving former FBI informant Hal Turner, a cigar chomping Bergen County, NJ blogger and Intenet radio host known for his racist and anti-Semitic views. The government alleged that Turner's violent blog statement targeting three federal judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago who rejected cases challenging gun bans constitute a crime:
Let me be the first to say this plainly: These judges deserve to be killed. Their blood will replenish the tree of liberty. A small price to pay to assure freedom for millions.
These judges deserve to be made such an example of as to send a message to the entire judiciary: Obey the Constitution or die.
He supplemented these statements with other information including photos of the judges, their business phone numbers, and maps of the courthouses that detailed the location of concrete explosion deflectors.
Turner was not just any garden variety bigot. He was exposed as an FBI informant after hackers broke into to his computer and email files in 2008 and that role was a key element in his defense. Turner's scathing bigotry was amplified by his over the top showmanship at rallies, as well as the invective of his Internet website and radio shows. His slightly shrouded, yet shrill calls for violence, sometimes included the addresses of those targeted for his biting hostility. Turner was once called "highly reliable" by the feds and unique in his ability "to provide vital information" on neo-Nazis from groups like Aryan Nations and the National Alliance. He was even flown to Brazil to get information on a potential donor who was allegedly considering bankrolling American neo-Nazis.
His trial, which was expected to last weeks and include former federal prosecutor turned New Jersey Governor elect Chris Christie as a witness, concluded just days after it started. The government called only about six witnesses and the defense rested at the conclusion of the government's case. On Monday a mistrial was called after a jury leaning towards acquittal could not agree on a verdict. A retrial is scheduled for March. To add insult to injury a New York town is seeking reimbursement for tens of thousands in expenses it incurred from the FBI for a Turner rally while he was an informant.
Other Internet Hate Cases
Turner also faces charges in Connecticut state court for statements he directed against legislators there who sought reforms relating to church finance laws. Another hate webmaster, Virginian William White, who published a photo with then candidate Barack Obama in rifle crosshairs and the words "Kill this n-----?", faces charges in an unrelated case involving the posting of confidential juror information in a matter involving the racist World Church of the Creator.
The United States Supreme Court has held that offensive speech is protected by the First Amendment and that the internet is among the most protected fora for speech. The court has also held that while threats and imminent incitement to criminality are punishable, crude political statements constitute protected speech. In the 1969 case Watts v. United States, 349 U.S. 705 (1969), the court held that an anti-war rally protestor's statement that if he were drafted "the first man I want to get in my [rifle] sights is L.B.J." was not a bona fide punishable threat.
On the other side of the country, as well as the ideological spectrum, another informant induced headache bubbled up for the feds late last week. In February, Afghan immigrant Ahmadullah Sais Niazi, a naturalized citizen, was arrested by members of the Orange County, California Joint Terrorism Task Force on five federal charges related to his non-disclosure of a familial relationship to a key aide of Osama bin Laden. Niazi's sister is married to Amin al-Haq, a terrorist identified by the government who also was allegedly bin Laden's bodyguard. These cases often make headlines at the time of indictment and then at the resolution of the matter. In Niazi's case, an unusual thing happened--the alleged informant has become as big of a story as the defendant--with neither coming out looking particularly good.
Give Me That OC Religion
Niazi and his erstwhile informant probably represent the latest disturbing entry in Orange County's Hall of Shame for religious intolerance. Much to the embarrassment of its far quieter tolerant majority, the otherwise laid back California county has been an equal opportunity employer of sorts to religious extremists of all stripes over the years. Suspected Jewish extremists, still at large, murdered an Arab-American leader in the 1980s in a Santa Ana bombing. After his disgraced public ejection from the Crystal Cathedral earlier this decade neo-Nazi William Baker, who was a top leader in the group who once hired Holocaust Museum shooter James Von Brunn, shifted his lecturing to the welcoming arms of the Council on Islamic American Relations (CAIR). More recently, uber Islamophobe Geert Wilders addressed Chapman University last Spring. Local birther Pastor Wiley Drake told a national radio audience in June that he prays for the President's death and also preaches, "If they're a Muslim, they're a danger to the country." The county is also where American al Qaeda and convert from Judaism, Adam Gadahn became radicalized and where supporters of Hezbollah, Hamas, suicide bombing and a theocratic Taleban-like Islamic American state routinely speak to applause at the local University of California campus. A fundraiser for federal felon "political prisoner" and Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader Sami al Arian leader was held by the local CAIR branch for a challenge to the rigid application of conditions surrounding his guilty plea.
Not Exactly Choir Boys
Niazi is alleged by an FBI agent as praising bin Laden as an "angel" in a recorded conversation and discussing possible terror plots with an unidentified informant. The apparent informant in the case, convicted felon Craig Monteilh has proved to have major issues and baggage of his own. Shortly after Niazi's arrest Monteilh held an independent rambling press conference where he stated that he had taped discussions of terrorist plots against local shopping malls. Perhaps seeking a new job as speechwriter for Pastor Drake, Monteilh also aired his rather hostile views about the Muslim faith in general. Monteilh's alleged investigation and previous talk of jihad resulted in members of one local mosque, including Niazi, reporting him to authorities and seeking a restraining order. Monteilh served time in prison for forgery, fraud and grand theft and was involved in scamming $157,000 from two Orange County women he befriended in a gym.
A lawyered up Monteilh now plans to sue the FBI for $10 million dollars. Monteilh maintains that whatever one thinks of his tarnished past or his questionable investigative efforts, he has nonetheless provided taped, though as of yet non-public, evidence of dangerous plots against large local shopping malls to authorities. A Los Angeles area court last week unsealed some vague August 2007 records that show he had probation in a theft case cut short because he gave "very, very valuable" information to the FBI. He maintains that the FBI improperly permitted him to be charged and sentenced in a criminal matter where he was hampered by an alleged non-disclosure agreement.
While the FBI never officially acknowledged that Monteilh was an informant, they released this general statement last week:
The FBI routinely gains the cooperation from citizens, to include convicted felons, in the pursuit of justice. The FBI has an historic policy of neither confirming or denying the identity of informants; to do so would jeopardize investigations and the personal security of others.
Claims suggesting that FBI agents directed others to break the law or to conduct activity outside the authority granted them under the United States Constitution, are patently false. Statements suggesting that FBI agents conducted - or directed others to conduct - activity targeting individuals based on their religious beliefs - specifically those of the Islamic faith - are untrue, and unfair to the agents, as well as the American Muslim community.
In addition to his lawsuit against the FBI, Monteilh has further eroded strained relations between the feds, CAIR and other advocacy groups. CAIR has accused the government of improperly targeting mosques for surveillance (a charge the FBI vigorously denies), while the FBI had previously cut formal ties to the group after it was designated an unindicted coconspirator in a federal criminal terrorism funding case out of Texas, that resulted in the felony conviction of a co-founder of CAIR's Texas branch.
The Niazi-Monteilh situation highlights the real tension between two credible positions. Civil libertarians rightly point that out that some investigations can and have ensnared those who are either bystanders or relative incompetents with regard to violent extremism. Conversely, intelligence analysts, who are generally not able to fax out press releases, rightly point to an undeniable disturbing trend.
Over the last year America has seen changes in both the frequency and character of violent radical Muslim based plots-some with real connections to al Qaeda. These include a plot against American mass transit by an alleged al Qaeda trained Afghan immigrant (who was possibly tipped off by an NYPD informant codefendant), the defection of young Minnesotans to Somalia for service that included a suicide bombing, the Fort Hood murders by a disturbed radical, and arrests or convictions in North Carolina, New Jersey and New York. Just this week David Headley, an immigration consultant and one of two Chicago area men arrested in October, is being implicated by both Indian and American authorities for playing a supporting role in the November 2008 Mumbai, India terrorist attacks that killed over 160, including six Americans.
While the conduct of a couple of loose cannon informants can be a headache for the FBI and the butt of jokes, behind the scenes authorities are increasingly concerned about evolving threats from across the ideological spectrum. As DHS Secretary Napolitano said last week regarding al Qaeda sympathizers, "The fact is that home-based terrorism is here. And like violent extremism abroad, it is now part of the threat picture that we must confront." The difficulty for the feds is that some of their biggest successes are the thwarted attacks and anonymous decent informants that simply don't make the front pages, while the embarrassing informants are sometimes the loudest. I know this for a fact because many years ago an attack on an office I worked at was thwarted through the work of some anonymous government heroes I'll never know or be able to personally thank.