Biting His Handlers

An FBI informant's secret tapes raise a troubling issue in the tower-bombing case: Did the bureau screw up?

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The FBI, which looked supremely capable in speedily rounding up suspects in the World Trade Center bombing, may actually have bungled a chance to thwart the explosion, according to secretly taped conversations between informant Emad Salem and his FBI handlers. In the most startling passage, leaked to the press last week, an agent seemingly accepts Salem's claim that the bombing could have been averted through his undercover work, including a proposed ploy to substitute inert powder for explosives.

The FBI, mortified by the possibility that Salem warned someone in the agency and was overlooked because of doubt that he was trustworthy, is investigating. Salem had parted company with the bureau half a year before the bombing, ironically because he reportedly would not wear a body microphone for secret taping. He was hired after the attack to penetrate the larger group of alleged terrorists. The agent who spoke in apparent confirmation of Salem may, FBI sources hopefully suggest, simply have been placating a volatile informant who was overstating his case.

The 70 audiocassettes unquestionably contain material embarrassing to the FBI and awkward for the prosecution in both the bombing trial under way in Manhattan and the related case alleging a massive conspiracy to blow up New York City landmarks and assassinate public officials. Says William Kunstler, a defense attorney in the second case: "The FBI never knew they were being taped, so they said very careless things -- how the informant was to conduct himself, how far he could go and how to entice them. This is probably the only case since entrapment became a defense where you have the law-enforcement agents being taped without their knowledge."

In the most extreme outcome, the defense in the World Trade Center case could secure a mistrial on the basis that Salem's tapes contain potentially helpful evidence and should have been handed over months ago instead of last week, after excerpts and summaries appeared in the press. Prosecutors have taken weeks to establish how heinous the bombing was; last week the case reached its 58th witness without any testimony directly linking the defendants to the bomb. This strategy could be blunted if the jury comes to believe that the U.S. government had the opportunity to forestall the bombing. While that would not make the defendants any more or less guilty, it might give them more sympathetic appeal.

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