On Saturday, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, Roslynn Mauskopf, went on TV with FBI and police officials to announce a victory. Four men had been charged in what Mauskopf described as "one of the most chilling plots imaginable." If successful, she said, the plot "could have resulted in unfathomable damage, deaths and destruction." And just in case there was any doubt about the gravity of the plot, she added, "The devastation that would be caused had this plot succeeded is just unthinkable."
But the 33-page complaint against the men, issued by Mauskopf's office, describes a plan that is somewhat less impressive. The four suspects, Russell Defreitas, Kareem Ibrahim, Abdul Kadir and Abdel Nur, allegedly schemed to blow up fuel tanks and a fuel pipeline at JFK Airport. This plan did not target passenger terminals or airplanes. It was an attack on ... jet fuel. Which would have been rather hard to pull off successfully. "Jet fuel is flammable and can be made to explode, but it's difficult," says Richard Kuprewicz, an independent energy consultant who has worked with pipeline operators for 33 years. Even if someone did manage to blow up a fuel tank, the resulting fire would not spread through the main pipeline, he says. "Are they true terrorism targets that would shut down JFK for weeks or even days? No."
Excerpts from taped conversations with the suspects, included in the complaint, make it clear that while they may have dreamed of pulling off a major terrorist strike, they had very little idea what they were actually doing. In the worst-case scenario, there might have been a fire which would have been contained to an unpopulated area of the airport, since that's where the tanks and the pipeline are located. "This whole theory that they were going to blow up this entire 40-mile pipeline shows naïveté in my mind," says Roy Haase, spokesperson for the Buckeye Partners LP, which runs the pipeline in question. "They were foolish."
Still, on Monday, Mauskopf's spokesperson stood by the strong language: "All I would say to you is reread the complaint, and it's clear from what these defendants have said what their plans were." When pressed, he defaulted to the inevitable trump card: "The individuals that carried out the 9/11 attacks, if you were to talk about what they planned to do with plane tickets and box cutters, take down the Twin Towers, that's an unbelievable plot."
But the issue here is not that the plot is hard to believe. If it turns out to be true, the authorities did an excellent job foiling a plot before it happened. The problem is the fear-mongering, the fact that all too often these days, the rhetoric around these anti-terror arrests doesn't fit the charges. It is hardly the first time we've seen officials get overstimulated when announcing terrorism charges. Remember Jose Padilla? Or the "more-aspirational-than-operational" Seas of David group?. So why is is that, in so many terror cases, prosecutors seem to go out of their way to make alleged bad guys sound scarier than they are?
1) Legal Gamesmanship
Even though the trial may be years away, it has already begun for the prosecutor. The blockbuster press conference is a way to influence potential jurors, judges and attorneys before they even get selected. "This is their first best punch. It's the first time the prosecutor has an unobstructed shot at reaching the public and jurors, too," says Brian Levin, a specialist on terrorism prosecutions and an associate professor of criminal justice at California State University San Bernardino. "Prosecutors know that this is the one time they'll be able to make their case live with very little questioning. You're going to use great, nonspecific words to describe the gravity of the case."
Anyone who prosecutes terrorism cases knows that the U.S. is going to be hit again. When it happens, prosecutors and FBI agents and police will feel much better knowing that they hit suspected terrorists hard, even if only rhetorically. Otherwise, after the next attack the public will legitimately ask for their heads.
3) Pressure From Above
"There's incredible pressure to bring high-profile cases that show that the government is doing its job," says Levin, who trains prosecutors and is himself a former New York City Police Department officer. Since 9/11, prosecutors have been forced to act pre-emptively, making arrests earlier than they ever would have before. But they still use the same scorched-earth rhetoric when talking up their cases.
The suspects in this case had malicious intentions, according to the complaint. One of them allegedly told the government's informant that he hoped to outdo the 9/11 attacks and devastate the U.S. economy. Even if he was delusional, his ambitions were nasty: "Anytime you hit Kennedy, it is the most hurtful thing to the United States," Defreitas allegedly told the informant. "They love John F. Kennedy like he's the man." Prosecutors are charged with protecting Americans from terrorists, so they wouldn't be doing their jobs if they didn't find this kind of talk appalling.
Of course, a high-profile counter-terrorism success is also great resume builder, too. It's probably worth mentioning that Mauskopf's nomination to the federal bench has been stalled by Senator Russell Feingold, who seems to think she is too cozy with the Bush Administration when it comes to death penalty prosecutions. A big terrorism case can boost a prosecutor's reputation in Congress.
Nefarious plots help justify more federal counter-terrorism resources. "Once again, would-be terrorists have put New York City in their cross hairs," NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly made sure to note at the press conference. The next day, New York Congressman Peter King put a finer point on it: "It certainly demonstrates that New York needs more money, and that New York is the No. 1 target."
There are simpler forces at work, too. Many cops and prosecutors like to turn their targets into superheroes. It helps to justify their hard work and make life more interesting.
8) No Downside
And finally, the best reason to overstate the case? Because there's no risk. Prosecutors do not tend to get rebuked for using strong language when describing would-be terrorists. And they figure that if they later find out they were wrong, the public record will show that the charges were dropped. No harm done, right?
Except that there is harm done. Two days after the press conference, the New York Sun ran a story under the headline, "JFK Pipeline Is 'Ticking Time Bomb.'" Residents were quoted fretting about the coming Armageddon. But the pipeline has been around since 1966, and there has never been an explosion. It pumps eight million gallons of fuel around New York City every day, and it does so far more safely than trucks or trains ever could.
The larger penalty is even more insidious. This time, the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times ran front-page stories repeating Mauskopf's superlatives. Next time, when the complaint actually supports her claims, they may not. No one wants to look like a chump twice. Not even regular citizens. So every time the government is found to be embellishing its case, members of the public lose a little bit of faith. They might eventually begin to think the terrorism threat is not very serious after all. They might understandably discount what authorities say. And that kind of complacency, even if it is indirectly caused by good attorneys who are just trying to do their jobs, is, well, "chilling."