In the fall of 2008, James Cromitie - a 45 year old Wal-Mart employee who had converted to Islam in prison on drug charges - met "Maqsood" at a Newburgh, New York mosque. Cromitie told his new friend that he felt sure he was "gonna run into something real big." Maqsood was just the person to help in this regard. As the Washington Post recently reported, and unbeknownst to Cromitie, "Maqsood" was actually Shahed Hussain, a native of Pakistan who had fled to the U.S. when he was arrested for murder in 1994. Hussain got a job as a translator for the DMV, and became an informant when he was arrested on fraud charges for helping applicants cheat on tests. By the fall of 2008, he was working for the FBI, hunting supposed "lone wolf" terrorists in the suburbs of New York. He visited the Newburgh mosque 12 times before he met Cromitie. Hussain told Cromitie that he was part of a Pakistani terrorist group, and when Cromitie told Hussain he'd "like to get a synagogue," Hussain was happy to help, even suggesting, when it appeared that Cromitie had lost interest, that Cromitie could make $250,000. Ultimately, Hussain put together a plot that resulted in the arrests of Cromitie and 3 others for planting fake bombs outside 2 synagogues.
At trial, U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon expressed concern with the FBI's tactics. "I believe beyond a shadow of a doubt," she said, "that there would have been no crime here except the government instigated it, planned it and brought it to fruition." However, she said, "[t]hat does not mean that there was no crime." She sentenced the 4 men to 25 years in prison.
If you've followed the news for the past decade, Cromitie's case may seem familiar -- "sting" operations involving FBI informants have resulted in arrests in supposed plots to bomb the U.S. Capitol, the Washington, D.C. metro, the Sears Tower and the Portland, Oregon Christmas tree, among others. These cases are part of the government's so-called "pre-emption" strategy against terrorism, in which government agents attempt to identify individuals who might commit an act of terrorism had they the means and opportunity, and to provide those means an opportunity, in order to "neutralize such threats before they come to fruition." This strategy has become so prevalent that the FBI's stable of informants has reportedly grown by a factor of 10 since 1975. In its 2008 budget, the FBI requested more than $12 million for software to track and manage all of its informants.
Government authorities often make deals with participants in crime in order to get information necessary to prove criminal cases. But when it recruits criminals and manufactures crimes, the government enters a whole new Orwellian landscape. There may be room for on honest debate over whether it is necessary to jail individuals for their thought and beliefs in order to combat terrorism. But the tactics that landed James Cromitie -- and dozens of others -- in prison have that result, without the debate.